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  1. It is 1979 and Alan Groombridge, the manager of a small, provincial town bank, has a fantasy. One day, he’ll steal all the money from the bank’s safe and run away from his suffocating life. A life with a wife and children he no longer loves and doesn’t even like. But he only gets as far as taking the money out of the safe, when he is alone in the bank, putting the money in his pocket, fantasying about where that money will take him, before putting the money back. Then one day, as he holds the money from the safe, the bank is robbed at gunpoint. But these robbers, Marty and Nigel, are almost comically inept; they end up taking the bank’s cashier Joyce and one other employee hostage and leaving with a fraction of the bank’s money. On a wild impulse, Alan runs away with the rest of the money to fulfil his own fantasy. This is only the premise of this novel. This is no comic story of a failed bank robbery but instead a downward spiral of four characters swept up in a moment’s bad decision. Ruth Rendell charts these characters’ lives and bad decisions with spot-on physiological skill; her plot comes out of her characters’ psychology rather than forcing them into her plot. She unnervingly captures the changing dynamics in her characters’ relationships, the shifting power dynamics. An illegally acquired gun becomes a lightning rod for the power between three of the characters, corrupting and ultimately destroying them. This isn’t a conventional crime novel, where a crime is committed and a detective must solve it. This is a novel about the effects of a crime, the effects it has on all the lives touched by that crime, the guilty and the innocent. Rendell wrote these psychological crime novels alongside her Chief Inspector Wexford detective novels and later alongside her Barbara Vine novels. At their best, and this novel is her at her best, these psychological novels are refreshingly interesting and darkly original, and several of them were her best novels. Make Death Love Me is an uncomfortably original novel and, if you have never read one, a good place to start reading Rendell’s psychological crime novels. Find it here on Amazon
  2. Homophobia is a word used frequently in our media, but what is meant by it? The dictionary definition is fear of someone homosexual, but Julie Fish (senior lecturer and research fellow in social work at De Montfort University, Leicester) doesn’t think it goes far enough to define the discrimination faced by lesbian, gay and bisexual people. This is the argument behind her book. In her opening chapter, Fish argues for the use of the term Heterosexism for prejudice/discrimination against LGB people. Her argument is homophobia is seen as a personal fault, the prejudice of just one person, it doesn’t have the social/political element of sexism or racism and therefore can be marginalised as the fault of the individual and not society. Changing to the use of Heterosexism also encompasses this social/political element. This might not be a new argument, originating in America, but Fish firmly roots it in British culture and health and social care, making this book very relevant for British readers. Other chapters analyse LGB health care needs (not just sexual health), how stereotypes feed into discrimination (not just negative ones), the barriers to LGB research (why often there is so little published), why information on LGB demographics is often poor, examples of Heterosexism from research, and the last chapter is a review of the current government’s legalisation that affects LGB people and the way forward for social equality. Though coming from a social care background, Fish’s book has plenty to offer for nurses and healthcare professionals, especially challenging us in how we marginalise LGB people often without thinking. Though an academic, Fish’s tone here is straightforward and readable, not the dry and uninteresting tone that often creeps into academics’ writing. The main drawback is its price, which for such a concise book is high—which sadly shows how little faith the publishers have in it. My advice, if you can’t afford it then pester your Trust’s library until they get a copy. Certainly a must-read for all in healthcare. (This review was originally written as a commission by the Nursing Standard magazine) Find it here on Amazon
  3. Sue Townsend rightly has the reputation as one of our finest comic novelists. Adrian Mole is one of the great comic characters and Sue Townsend did the most refreshing of things, she allowed him to age naturally. What we often forget is was what a good satirist she was too. This book steals the format from her other creation, Adrian Mole. This is the secret diary of Margaret Hilda Roberts, aged 14¼, living above her father’s grocer's shop in Grantham. This is Margaret Thatcher as a girl, long before she met and married Denis. Here Sue Townsend presents all the character tropes that Thatcher was renowned for – the workaholic, surviving on two hours’ sleep a night, the disdain for the working class, the distrust of the BBC and the inability to see the benefit of art – and she presents them in the character of a fourteen-year-old girl. This makes them seem absurd and very strange. Sue Townsend subtly questions these qualities, are they really positive characteristics? This book is also populated with caricatures of political figures from the same time. They are broad caricatures and often presented as other children in Margaret Hilda Roberts’s life, but the in-joke of recognising the real politicians just adds to the fun. This book is fun too, Sue Townsend’s wonderful sense of humour is plainly on display here and her jokes hit the mark (more than once I laughed out loud). The only problem with this book is that it’s so short and ended too soon. Find it here on Amazon
  4. Beryl Bainbridge, at her best, always had a dark view of life. It wasn’t just the unhappiness of life she wrote about so well but the pain and regret under that unhappiness. This novel is a fine example of the darkness she found in ordinary people’s lives. It is set in Liverpool in 1945. The war is finally turning and the city is awash with American GIs, but this is still the world of ration books, shortages and make do and mend. In this cold and austere world, naïve and immature Rita lives with her two aunts, Nellie and Margo. Her mother has died and her father is incapable of raising a daughter. Rita dreams of being a GI bride, her head was turned by the fantasy of the Hollywood films she escaped to in the local Picture House. At a party organised by a neighbour she meets her own GI. She rapidly falls in love with him, though she is far more in love with the idea of having her own GI than with the man himself. Her aunts, though, are certain that this young man is not suitable for their niece. This is not romantic fiction, it is a drama of downtrodden lives; Rita’s relationship with her GI has no breath of romance about it. The aunts’ lives are as dull and washed out as the wartime city around them. Nellie is the matronly character forced to be the head of the family. Margo is what was once called “blousy”, an unmarried middled-aged woman who behaves as if she was still young, though here she is no caricature; she is a woman who is desperate not to let life pass her by, even though it is rapidly doing so. The male characters are very much secondary characters here, but this is a novel about the women at the heart of it and it is no less a novel for that. This was the first Bainbridge novel I read. As a teenager, I was wary of literary fiction, finding it highbrow and inaccessible. With this novel, I was gripped by its dark opening and carried along by its dark plot. I was surprised that a novel with the plaudits this one had would also have such an interesting and readable plot. The characters were also all too recognisable. Rereading it recently, I found it had lost none of its dark appeal. This is Beryl Bainbridge at her height. Though a short novel, none of its pages are wasted and it still lingers in the memory long after I finished reading it. Find it on Amazon
  5. Anthologies can be interesting reads and, in the past, have introduced me to writers I might not have found in other ways. If it’s by one author then it can be an interesting introduction to an author’s work or else it is a way to see how an author handles writing short stories, which are different form from novel writing. If it’s an anthology of different writers then there is a chance to discover new authors. Unfortunately, this anthology did not provide any of this. I found this anthology so frustrating because none of the stories developed any of their themes. None of the stories had any character development or even led anywhere. After finishing each story, I was left with the feeling, “Was that it?” None reached any sort of resolution. Now, short stories are not novels, I don’t expect complete character story arcs or resolution of big themes, but they are stories and stories do need to take the reader somewhere. All the stories here left me feeling frustrated because they didn’t go anywhere. Some of the stories had an interesting premise but did not follow through on that premise, ending too soon or just not exploring that premise. One story, which illustrates my frustration with this anthology, was about two work colleagues sharing a car to a team-building event. They bought coffees; they argued over what music to play in the car; the car got a flat tyre; they waited for the breakdown van to arrive; they restarted their journey and it started to rain, but they didn’t reach their team-building event. The characters didn’t share anything, they didn’t get to know each other, they didn’t contact in any way; they were just the same at the beginning as they were at the end of the story, nothing had changed or been challenged. What was the point of this story? It was just a catalogue of their morning. For an anthology to have one story as frustrating and pointless as this is one thing, but to have a whole collection of stories like that is another thing. It had to be a conscious decision by the editor, but why would someone collect together a group of stories that all left the reader feeling so disappointed? I don’t know. My advice is not to waste your time with this anthology, I wish I hadn’t. Find it here on Amazon
  6. The hard-bitten American PI, working on his own to solve a murder, has become such a staple of crime fiction that it is now a cliché and has been parodied more times than I can even begin to count. There has to be something original to one to even make me think about reading it, and Marshall Thornton has found that something original with his Nick Nowak mystery series. Nowak is working as a one man PI, in 1981 Chicago, when these stories start, but he enters these three novellas with his own baggage. His life has recently been turned upside down. Novak was walking home with his lover Daniel when they were queerbashed. This leads to him being outed at work, as a Chicago cop, and losing his job, being ostracised by his own family, a lot of whom are also Chicago cops, and his relationship with Daniel ending. This all happens before the first novella even starts. Marshall Thornton has created three interesting mysteries for Nowak to solve. The first is a missing person that is anything but straightforward. Then there is an arson attack that has a shocking path. Finally, there is an apparent suicide that is anything but. These three stories are very rooted in gay Chicago of the 1980s. As engaging as these mysteries are, the real enjoyment here is Nick Nowak’s own life and his navigation of the unfriendly world of the 1980s, especially if you were gay. Nowak is an engaging narrator, someone whose voice makes these stories fresh, but Marshall Thornton has created a supporting cast of characters who are just as interesting and engaging. Nowak’s world isn’t unrelentingly negative; there is joy and friendship here and sex. Nowak has no problem finding other men to enjoy his sexuality with. The Nick Nowak books are much more than hard-bitten PI stories; they are the chronicle of a man’s life and his relationships. They are also wonderfully evocative of 1980s gay life. Marshall Thornton should be applauded for this; these are very enjoyable and easy reads. So often crime stories can be guilty pleasures, but the Nick Nowak books are far better than that and should be enjoyed as such. But do read them in order, so many characters return in later books, providing different strains to the stories, and if you don’t know who they are it could be a difficult read. Find it here on Amazon
  7. This is Carrie Fisher’s insider novel about the ups and many downs of surviving and living in Hollywood. Suzanne Vale, the central character here and Carrie Fisher’s obvious alter ego, is a Hollywood actress, but not an A list one, trying to survive through a year in her life. The novel begins with Suzanne admitted to rehab following a drug overdose, drugs that she liked too much. The novel then charts the events of the following year as Suzanne navigates a relationship with a film producer, returns to work as an actress, fills in her days, survives Hollywood parties and makes the required appearance on a TV chat show. Though none of this may sound interesting, and could sound self-indulgent, it is Fisher’s wit and insight that make this a fascinating read. The character of Suzanne Vale is the driver of this book. It is her character and internal conflicts, as she learns to live without drugs, that hold the attention and it is also Fisher’s sharp wit that makes the book sparkle. If you enjoyed the film adaption, don’t expect the book to be the same, Suzanne Vale’s mother is a very minor character here. From the beginning, Fisher is experimenting with the novel’s form. Only part of it is written in the traditional third-person narrative. One section is written in a first-person narrative, Suzanne Vale’s journal, one section is written in dialogue only and another in letter form. This style can be off-putting, a different style with almost each section, but this book is worth the effect. Fisher’s humour is sharp and always funny, but her insights into trying to survive as a B/C list actress in Hollywood are fascinating. This was Fisher’s first novel, which certainly explains her experimenting with different styles, and in places it does feel like she was learning different writing styles, but it is still a strong first novel and well worth the read. This novel is a writer beginning to make her mark on the world and not some actor’s vanity project. If you loved the film version then read this novel as a companion to it, more than the same plot in novel form. If you haven’t seen the film, then here is a fascinating first novel. Find it here on Amazon
  8. “2,556,596 faggots in the New York City area.” So begins Larry Kramer’s infamous novel. It is a strange opening for a novel but, in some way, is indicative of this one. It is the late 1970s and this novel is an odyssey through gay New York life. The main protagonist is Fred Lemish, almost a gay everyman, who is just short of forty. He is searching for love, especially the love of the gay hunk Dinky Adams, but all he can find is promiscuous sex, recreational drug use and almost constant disappointment. This novel has so many things in it that just don’t work. Firstly, the large cast of characters makes it difficult to follow, some of them not having enough time to develop and other characters who do not add much, if anything, to the plot and left me wondering why they were there. Then there are the sex scenes, the many, many sex scenes. Some of them do add to character development but many of them felt repetitive, by the end of the book I was feeling, “Not another sex scene.” I wanted to read the novel; I didn’t want the distraction of all this sex. But what wore me down, as a reader, was its unrelenting negativity. Nothing here works out well; no characters get close to a happy ending, all of them end up unhappy in their own different ways. In one scene, a romantic relationship is sabotaged before it can even begin, which felt almost nasty on the part of the author. The characterisation here was so poor that I was left feeling frustrated. Characters are portrayed in a negative light for their actions, promiscuous sex and drug use, but there is little to no examination of why they are behaving like this. What is reinforcing such negative behaviour? This novel is set in 1978 New York and yet there is little discussion of the homophobia of that time, both external and internal. Homophobia then was more than systemic, it would have had a huge impact on these characters, it would have driven so much of their lack of self-worth, yet it is barely mentioned. This novel felt less a satire on gay life and much more an expression of Larry Kramer’s distaste for a world that didn’t accept him and that is such a shame. With his plays The Normal Heart and The Destiny of Me, Kramer showed he is a writer who understands characterisation. Those plays got under the skin of their characters and examined their situations. The Normal Heart examined the homophobia that was preventing fighting AIDS; The Destiny of Me examined the events that shaped the central character, a gay man facing his own morality and the fact that there was so little treatment, then, for HIV. None of that ability is on display in Faggots, if it had been maybe this novel would have been so much better. Here Kramer tries to hold up a mirror to the world around him, unfortunately it is a distorting mirror that sneers back. Such a missed opportunity from a man who could be a great writer. Find it here on Amazon
  9. Self-help books have become a modern publishing phenomenon, bookshops have whole sections dedicated to them and a large number of them are of questionable value, often being written by people who have little or no experience of the subject. Fortunately, this book doesn’t fall into that category. The authors are four clinical psychologists, all with extensive experience working with people who are HIV positive. The book has been designed as a guide for people newly diagnosed with HIV and covers what to expect and what to do following this sea-change in their life. It is divided into three sections. The first part looks at the lifestyle implications of being HIV positive; healthcare, disclosure of HIV statutes, stress, relationships and children. The second part looks at emotional strategies for coping with HIV, and the last section looks at a problem-solving approach to living with HIV. Because of the authors’ backgrounds and approach, this book may come across as “warm and fuzzy”, it certainly has a lot of emphasis on the emotional/psychological side of the experience, but for a lot of people this is what they can be swamped with when they are first diagnosed. It is refreshing, though, to have a self-help book do this. This is not a book that is based on one person’s narrow experience of HIV. Unfortunately, there is little to offer nurses and other healthcare professionals here. Much of the advice will be common knowledge to many nurses and the tone can come across as a bit simplistic, but this isn’t a book aimed at healthcare professionals, it’s aimed at the general population. The value of this book is that it can be recommended to patients or others. It could be very useful to someone newly diagnosed with HIV or someone struggling to come to terms with it. Rating: four out of five stars. (This review was originally written as a commission by the Nursing Standard magazine) Find it here on Amazon Drew Payne
  10. Though this is a classic dystopian novel, the world it portrays is still strikingly original, even though it was first published in 1932. There is an oppressive, totalitarian regime ruling the world, here they are ruling it by creating a hedonistic society where everyone’s sexual and pleasurable desires are fulfilled. This is also the ultimate classist society, here people are genetically engineered for the class they will live out their lives in. Even now this is still a very original dystopia. Huxley created a world that is shockingly class riddled, people are born via huge vitro factories where foetuses are manipulated to be one of five rigid classes. The alphas are at the top, the most intelligent and the tallest, and the epsilons are at the bottom being the basic manual labourers with the lowest IQ and shortest stature. No one questions this society because everyone is kept “happy” with legally available mind-altering drugs and the requirement to be sexually promiscuous, even the simplest signs of monogamy are frowned on. This novel isn’t about the downfall of this society, as many lesser dystopian novels are, but how a few characters fall foul of it and what happens to them. Huxley vividly creates his world, leading the reader through many of the different institutions that are the pillars of this society; the novel opens with a vivid description of a vitro factory. Unfortunately his characters are not as striking or as well drawn as these institutions. This is a very male-dominated world and some of them feel interchangeable. There are only two real female characters, one is the object of everyone’s desire, all the male characters want to sleep with her, and the other is a sad and old woman, her body allowed to age naturally and therefore she is now “ugly”. The style of this novel is very detached and unemotional, so often scenes are described in a cold and dispassionate tone. The most intimate the novel gets is when Lenina is confronted by a woman who has aged normally and she is repulsed by her and when John, the savage, sits by his mother’s bed as she dies in a drug-induced coma. These are also the most memorable scenes of the novel, where Huxley gets under the skin of his characters. Unfortunately, the rest of the novel does not reach this same level of intimacy. I have found this is the style of other novels from the same time, but I still found it distracting, so unemotional, so detached from its characters. There are some language and scenes here that could make a modern reader uncomfortable but this is still a very interesting and original dystopian novel, especially remembering it was first published in 1932. Find it here on Amazon Drew
  11. Alan Bennett has become inextricably linked with the life of Miss Shepherd, the tramp (by her behaviour and attitudes she could never be called anything else) who lived in a derelict van on his driveway for nearly twenty years, but this book is where it all began. Though this is a slim volume it still carries so much pathos. It is constructed from entries from Bennett’s diary that chronicle his relationship with Miss Shepherd. It began when he allowed her to park her van, in which she lived, in his driveway, to avoid the new residents’ parking restrictions in his area of North London. He intends it as a short time arrangement, but it runs into a nearly twenty-year residency. Bennett’s book chronicles Miss Shepherd’s eccentric behaviour and beliefs, which are uncomfortably far right. At the beginning of the book her actions are portrayed as comic, and she certainly gets some of the best lines in the book. But as the book progresses the tone slowly becomes darker, Miss Shepherd’s behaviour more poignant than comic. Her own preparation for her death is so sadly poignant. It is only after her death that Bennett is able to piece together the real events of her life, which her eccentric behaviour hid when alive. This book is unsentimental in its portrayal of Miss Shepherd, her life and the effects she had on those around her. So many times Bennett recounts how angry and frustrated he was by her, Miss Shepherd was never grateful for any help given her. But it also illustrates a life that fell through the huge cracks in Thatcher’s Britain. Miss Shepherd was at the bottom of the economic ladder, so poor her home was a broken-down old van, with mental health problems, surviving on the charity of local people. Though a short volume this book is a fascinating read, a chronicle of life that could have been so easily forgotten about once she had died. Find it here on Amazon Drew
  12. David Leavitt’s strength has always been the drama he finds in ordinary people’s lives. Not for him the lives of the extraordinary, but his characters can so often feel like the most ordinary of people, yet the lives he finds behind their ordinariness are fascinating. This, his first novel, revolves around a cast of characters who are in flux in their lives, small changes that led to far greater ones. It is 1980s New York and Philip, a gay man in his early twenties, has fallen in love for the first time. In that flush of first love, he decides to come out to his middle-class parents. His parents are facing eviction from their home as their building goes co-op, but Philip’s coming out releases far more than the expected results in his parents. His mother is dissatisfied with her life and marriage, his father has been hiding his homosexuality for decades, with grabbed encounters in gay porn theatres. Many novelists would have concentrated on the three central characters here, but what lifts this novel up from just a domestic drama about homosexuality in ’80s New York is the depth Leavitt puts into his supporting cast of characters. Philip’s boyfriend Elliot, Philip’s friend Brad and Jerene, Elliot’s lesbian flat mate, all get the character development that some authors would only reserve for their main characters. Married to this character development is an interesting plot that carries its characters along with it, coming out of their needs and actions, but it does not run smoothly and comfortably; characters behave well or poorly in the space of their own story arcs, there are no heroes or villains here, just flawed people. This is a remarkable first novel. It is written in an assured and yet open style, but it also made me want to read more and more. I first read it when it was originally published and was swept away by its plot and insight; so much of it spoke about my life at the time, the state of my own relationships then. Rereading it recently, I found it just as insightful in its view of human relationships. I also found it fascinating in its portrayal of life in the 1980s, a life before the internet and smartphones and apps. But most remarkable of all is still that this is a first novel. Find it here on Amazon Drew
  13. Lord Peter Wimsey has fallen in love with the crime novelist Harriet Vane. Unfortunately, she is on trial for her life, accused of poisoning her former lover. Lord Peter, to demonstrate his love for her, sets about to prove Harriet is innocent before she faces a retrial. Dorothy L. Sayers has often been called the best writer of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, but I have never found this. Her descriptive style is certainly better than Agatha Christie’s and Ngaio Marsh’s, but I find her plots and characters’ motivations so lacking. This novel is a prime example of this. There is no mystery as to who the killer is, there is only one other suspect here, and the how-he-did-it factor is not presented with enough mystery to hold the anticipation. There some interesting elements here, the female detective agency that Wimsey occasionally uses should have been given their own novel, but these elements do not add up to an interesting whole. The premise is interesting, Harriet Vane on trial for murder, but Sayers begins this novel at the end of the trial, the judge’s summing up, we do not even get any degree of courtroom drama. Many of the working-class characters are uncomfortably deferent to the nobility. The biggest problem for me is at the heart of the novel, Wimsey himself. He’s a playboy detective, full of charm, though Sayers never explains where his detective skills come from. Is he so good at solving murders because he’s so upper class and therefore bred to be superior at everything or is it because Sayers’ mysteries are so easy to solve? Not everyone is going to like every author. Many people have told me that Sayer is the greatest of the Golden Age crime writers but I have never seen how this is so, there are many other authors I’d read before her. Find it here on Amazon
  14. Treatment and survival of people with HIV has improved greatly over the years. No longer is HIV an automatic terminal condition. Now treatment opinions are varied and complex so treatment manuals are a required resource, but a resource is only as good as the information in it. The editors here, Libman and Mackadon (both doctors), appear to have put a lot of work into this volume. The authors of each section are qualified for the area they are writing on. It felt refreshing that the editors have selected a variety of authors. So often editors only have a handful of authors, the same people writing many of the sections, spreading their experience rather thinly. This book is very medical in tone. The majority of authors are medics. The language used and the approach taken is very medical. This can be off-putting, but don’t pass by this book because there is a wealth of information here. The focus here is a medical model, emphasis on treatment opinions and the physiological effects of HIV, but this information is still valuable for many of us. This isn’t a book to read from beginning to end, some of the dry and medical language used here could make that difficult; but it is a book to dip into for information. The price of this book could also be off-putting; but it is a useful resource for anyone working in the field of HIV. (This review was originally written as a commission by the Nursing Standard magazine) Find it here on Amazon
  15. Agatha Christie was the queen of the literary three-card trick. She would create a mystery, lead you down a path thinking a certain character was the murderer and then at the end pull the rug from under your feet with the murderer as a totally different character—the last character you would suspect or the first one you’d discounted. Reading one of her books is like playing a game against her, can you spot the murderer before she reveals them? It can be said, and not unfairly, that many of her books are comfy and reassuring. There is a murder, often more than one, but by the end order has been restored and the good can live happily ever after. But this is not the case with all her books, especially her finest ones. And Then There Were None is one of her finest novels, if not her finest. The plot is simple, but in its simplicity lies the genius of this novel. Ten people are invited to a mansion on an island off the Devon coast, ten people all with a personal secret. Once on this island, they find their host, the strange Mr Owen, fails to appear. After dinner, on the instruction left by the mysterious Mr Owen, a record is played that accuses everyone there of causing another person’s death through neglect, incompetence, cruelty, greed or prejudice—though none of them are actual “murderers”. Then, one by one, the ten people begin to die, murdered following the lines of the children’s poem Ten Little Indians. To begin with, this does have the feeling of other Agatha Christie novels, light in mood with the expectation that the murderer will be unmasked and all will be returned to normal, but this doesn’t happen. More characters die and the tone gets darker and darker as fear grips the surviving characters. At first, the characters believe the murderer is an outsider, not one of them, hiding somewhere on the island. Then the realisation comes that one of them is the killer; with that comes the real fear. This novel has been filmed many times, so original is its premise, but all of them follow the stage play version, not the novel, and have a far brighter and upbeat ending. The novel has all ten characters die on the island before the murderer is unmasked. Only at the very end of the novel, when the murderer’s confession is finally found, is the mystery revealed. This is by far Agatha Christie’s darkest novel with a very original premise. A tense psychological thriller with a real feeling of cat and mouse about it. It has all her stock-in-trade favourite characters (the old maid, the doctor, the major, the servants who see too much, the attractive young couple), yet here she puts them in a very dangerous situation that pushes them out of the realm of architypes and into real characters living a dangerous game. If you have only ever seen one of the film versions of this novel, try the original novel because you will find it very different and gripping. If you have only known Agatha Christie through her Miss Marple and Poirot stories, then try this novel for a far darker read. If you are an Agatha Christie fan, sit back and enjoy her at her best. Find it here on Amazon
  16. This novella has a simple but enjoyable premise, which Alan Bennett exploits with his sharp and intelligent wit. The queen, unusually for her, is at a loose end in Buckingham Palace and goes for walk. Around a corner she doesn’t usually walk around she discovers a mobile library. Thinking it rude not to, she borrows a book from it. This first book sets her off on an odyssey of reading. She reads for pleasure, but also her reading educates her and opens her mind. And all this reading leads to a surprising ending. Bennett was the first playwright to include the queen as a character in a play, to have an actress portray her on the London stage. Her character stole the second act of his double bill of one-act plays, Single Spies. Here he portrays her as the central character of this story, through whose eyes we watch the gently unfolding events. Bennett’s prose is simple but still very enjoyable, and his wit is not dampened here. There are many jokes and comic scenes, again with the queen getting some of the best lines. But Bennett’s prose is also very readable; you can almost hear his distinctive voice as you read it. His characterisation of the queen is gentle and affectionate; he doesn’t send her up or portray her as too privileged and out-of-touch. But her character is written very much to serve his plot. This book is about the power and necessity of reading. Here books are a gateway into a new way of thinking and ultimately living. This story is also about the power and necessity of public libraries. The queen doesn’t discover the power of literature from the books hidden away in her own private library but from that most public of public libraries, a mobile library. It is ironic that Bennett uses a mobile library as the trigger for his plot, the thing that was invented to provide libraries to our remotest communities here turning up in the centre of London. This is only a slight book, a novella, but no less enjoyable for it. Bennett knows exactly when to end it and how to quietly make his points. Find it here on Amazon
  17. “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” This is the premise of Kurt Vonnegut’s greatest novel, but it is far more than that. As a middle-aged man, Billy Pilgrim is a successful optometrist, dully married to his wife with two children. As an elderly man, Billy Pilgrim is abducted by aliens, the Tralfamadores, and kept as an exhibit in their zoo on their home world. There he meets and starts a relationship with Montana Wildhack, a beautiful model who is abducted to be his companion. As a young man, Billy Pilgrim is a chaplain's assistant in the American army, during World War II. He is woefully undertrained and under resourced and is soon captured. As a prisoner of war, he witnesses the carpet bombing of Dresden. This novel does not have a linear format, the story jumps around in time with many sections not following on chronologically from the previous one, but this only highlights Billy Pilgrim being unstuck in time, it also highlights the fractured nature of this story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make this novel easy to read, but it is only one of the elements that make this novel a difficult read. All that said, this is a novel worth the effort of reading it. In my opinion, it is probably Vonnegut’s best novel. The description of Billy Pilgrim’s odyssey through German-occupied Europe, as a prisoner of war, is so memorable, from moments of loss and deep atrocity (the nightmare bombing of Dresden) to moments of almost farce. Vonnegut presents all of this with a cool and unsentimental approach. Lesser writers would have milked the tragedies here for every drop of forced emotion that they could, but Vonnegut just presents them as events that happen. When a character dies, the narration simply states, “So it goes.” This novel, in part, has been said to have been Vonnegut trying to understand what he saw and what happened to him during World War II, but it is no less for that. It is one of the great anti-war novels because Vonnegut wrote about real events with real-world consequences. What lifts it well above a simple anti-war sermon is Vonnegut’s storytelling and the scope of his imagination. This is not an easy read but it is worth the effort. I recommend it; even if it is the only novel of Vonnegut’s you read, it is worth reading. “So it goes.” Find it here on Amazon
  18. 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
  19. 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
  20. 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
  21. “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
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
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