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  1. It is 1930s Berlin and “Christopher Isherwood” is enjoying the notorious nightlife and culture of the city. Isherwood is an upper-class Englishman, surviving by teaching English to different citizens of the city, as he explores a life very different to his previous one, that opens him up to a diverse cast of characters. This book has become a modern classic, the basis of the musical and film Cabaret, but don’t expect a novelization of Cabaret here. The musical was inspired by this novel but the two are very different. This book is written in the form of a collection of novellas and diary entries. Unfortunately, this style does not help this book. Several of the novellas overlap in the time they cover. The Sally Bowls novella covers a long time period, causing Bowls to appear as a minor character in other novellas, which can make the reading confusing, you don’t know when a particular story is set. Worse than its haphazard structure, is the feeling of dishonesty to this book. It was published in 1939, with all the social prejudices of the time. The narrator is called “Christopher Isherwood” which gives this book an air of honesty, that these events happened and Isherwood has only simply fictionalised them. “Christopher Isherwood” is such an edited character, he’s portrayed as so sexless, but the truth of the man bleeds through in places. At one-point Sally Bowls is being romanced by an American businessman who buys her and the narrator expensive presents, without explanation, though the subtext is that the narrator is also sexually involved with the American businessman. Later the narrator lodges with a working-class Berlin family, though it is never mentioned about his desire to be closer to the family’s bisexual son Otto. Later still the narrator is pursued by a rich Jewish man, with almost constant invitations to spend weekends at his lodge, though the sexual nature of their relationship is never mentioned. But, in one section, the narrator spends a holiday as the houseguest of a gay couple, though it is a very negative and stereotyped portrayal. The most disappointing element of this book is its politics. A Jewish young woman is characterised as shallow, only interested in clothes. But the worst is how this book largely ignores the rise of the Nazis. It is set between 1929 and 1932, when the Nazis were rising to power, but they only appear in the last quarter of the book. There is such a varied cast of characters and it would have been fascinating to have their reactions to the rise of the Nazis. But this is such a wasted opportunity. Even with the constraints and prejudices of 1939, this book could have been so much more honest, even for a work of fiction. Isherwood was there and experienced Berlin life but he diluted it here. This book has been given the reputation as the great novel of pre-war Berlin life, unfortunately it just isn’t. Find it here on Amazon
  2. At the height of the Second World War, millionaire Gordon Cloade marries the beautiful young widow Rosaleen Underhay. Two days after they arrive in London, Gordon Cloade’s home is bombed, killing all the inhabitants except for Rosaleen Cloade and her brother David. In 1946, Rosaleen Cloade has settled in the village of Warmsley Vale, where her late husband’s home is and she is surrounded by his relatives who all lost out on their inheritances when Gordon married her. Then a man turns up in the village who may or may not be Rosaleen Cloade’s first husband, who was supposed to have died. This reminds Hercule Poirot of a story he heard, in his club at the height of the Blitz, told by an old soldier. This Christie novel is set very firmly during the Second World War and in the immediate post-war Britain, and she uses those very changing times to the advantage of her story. The nightmare of the Blitz kills all the members of one household, in one night, save for two people. But it is post-war Britain, were most of this novel is set, which is a very different and changing world, and Christie captures that world, were so much of the old order has been swept away. All of the characters have been affected and changed by the war, whether they fought in it or not. There are people here who have lost all their money in the war, but being upper-class, they cannot manage poverty. A couple whose son died in the war. A woman who married her husband to protect her father, and now her husband isn’t the man he was. And the young lovers changed by the war. He stayed at home, tended his farm and stayed the same. She went to war, serving in the WRENs, saw the world and has returned to a little village that is too small for her now. Amongst these characters, Christie weaves one of her twisting plots, this giving a handful of surprises, and even the murders are not what they appear to be. She especially takes advantage of her setting, a world turned upside-down, were even a small English village is full of new people, people who have to be taken at face value. Christie takes her time with this plot, taking her time to introduce and set up her characters before her plot rolls into action, and this is all for the better. She takes her time setting up her characters and their situation, so when the plot starts the reader is involved with these people, but these aren’t the most likeable of people, these are people pathetic in their situations. The plot is classic Christie, there’s more than a few surprises here for Poirot to uncover, with a rather messy ending. Unfortunately, this novel does creek with some attitudes of its day. The worse is when a woman only realises a man truly loves her when he loses his temper and tries to kill her. For her usual understanding of people, this felt very uncomfortable. That said, this is a classic and engaging Christie novel, and one with a title as engaging as the book. Find it here on Amazon
  3. James Hynes Sparrow My rating: 4 out 5 stars For a nearly eighteen hour long book, this was peculiarly riveting. Even more so when you realise there are hours of the story during which nothing much happens. And yet, those hours draw you in with their vivid descriptions of life at the tavern / brothel which forms the central locale of the novel. They make you care about the various characters, especially the young boy who narrates from old age what it's like to be a nameless slave living on the Spanish fringes of a slowly dying Roman empire. The trundling, closely-observed nature of the general narrative makes any points of conflict stand out all the sharper. And be warned, some incidents may be distressing, especially the one which turns the boy (and I mean, a boy) into a 'wolf'. And under all of this is a pervading sense of uncertainty, of instability, of the idea that a slave is disposable, a possession that might be sold, or damaged, or thrown away on a whim. Having spent all that time building layer upon layer of realism, I thought the ending was a cop-out. Maybe I missed something, but I don't think so. That apart, this was a surprisingly satisfying read. Theo Solomon as narrator helped. A lot. He caught a boy's tone perfectly and managed to differentiate all the other characters (there are many) with conviction.
  4. Against the backdrop of 1972 London, four lost souls collide. Pearson has just lost his lover, O'Connell committed suicide. The activist Nina feels her ideals slipping away from her as she also watches the trial of the Angry Brigade, the anarchist group accused of a spate of bombings. Sweet Thing, a streetwise rent boy, can make anyone desire him, but who or what does he desire? Johnny Chrome is on the verge of his big breakthrough as the next big thing in glam rock, a breakthrough he has been working for far too many years. The 1960s are over and the world is changing as the new decade begins. Jake Arnott’s novel captures the changing world of early 1970s London. The hope of the 1960s has gone but the anger and unrest of the 1970s is only just beginning. People are beginning to protest and to push back. Arnott captures the changing society these people are living in, the shifting and uncertainty of these times. He also captures the displaced nature of the characters here, all of them trying to find a place for themselves in this changing world. Arnott’s strength is his feeling for characters. He gets under the skin of four, very different characters here. He gives each one the same degree of insight and development here. Often with multi-character novels, a writer will favour one or two characters, the ones they like and/or identify with the most. Here Arnott gives equal attention to all his central characters, showing no favouritism. The big drawback with this novel is there is an abundance of riches. Arnott has chosen several, big plots here, covering different themes and subjects. There is enough plot and subject-matter in this novel to fill two or even three stories. This did leave some of the plot with less room to breathe and develop. This might seem a quibble, but I did want Arnott to fully develop the plot strands that didn’t get enough space. This novel not just captures the feel and atmosphere of the early seventies; it draws the reader into the lives of a mismatched group of people living around the edges of this society. Arnott also draws a very accurate portrayal of living in a squat, a way of life gone now. Like so much of Arnott’s writing, this novel is well worth spending time with. Find it here on Amazon
  5. Alice Winn In Memoriam My rating: 5 out of 5 stars Enthralling. Poignant. The horrors of war and a tender love story. You might think there are already too many stories about young Englishmen from privileged backgrounds who find themselves amidst the unspeakable events of World War 1. I half thought so too when I finally started this book after having it for several months. The opening chapters are a volley of names, characters, and their interactions at a 'public' school which can be tricky to navigate. Maybe I wasn't paying enough attention, but it took me several chapters to feel connected to the story. Then? Then I was ensnared. When does camaraderie between young men tip over into something else? How to navigate all the pitfalls, make hidden feelings clear to yourself if no-one else, and connect with the object of your affections when you're hardly ever alone? Using the coded language of literature is one way Henry Gaunt and Sidney Ellwood can try to express what they feel for each other - at school and at war. They are products of a system designed to produce a new generation of imperialists. The war changes them and the world around them profoundly. Hardly surprising really. The particular horrors of that conflict are not shied away from and some of the descriptions gave me pause for reflection. Such a grinding, pointless slaughter with mistakes being replayed over and over again. Through this hell runs the golden thread of love. Sometimes cut short; sometimes not. Always giving a reason to survive, to reconnect, to endure. The all-consuming nature of this wonderful novel is enhanced by Christian Coulson's narration. His light-toned voice suits this story of young men finding themselves in love and war. One to be reread many times.
  6. They say prostitution is the oldest profession, therefore those men who visit prostitutes must be the oldest Customer Demographic, but what do we know about them? The majority of research done has focused on prostitutes, very little on the men who use their services. Sarah Earle and Keith Sharp make these men the focus of their research and raise some fascinating points. This book is written from a sociological study, looking specifically at men who use the internet to find sex workers. Earle and Sharp looked at attitudes to body image, intimacy and emotions, sexual acts and health risks with sex work among these men. Their findings make interesting reading, they deflate the myth that men only go to sex workers for sex and the image of the dirty old man. The internet has opened up the area of sex work but we know little about the men who use it, their motives and their health needs. Earle and Sharp have opened a window onto this subject but their work shows that there is a lot more to do. There are two main drawbacks with this book. Firstly, there is the authors’ style which is very academic and is not the easiest of reads. Secondly, it is expensive, over £40 for its Kindle edition; for a book 144 pages long this is a lot. This book takes a different perspective on this subject and is welcome for it, but at its price it might be a library read for most of us. (This review was originally written as a commission by the Nursing Standard magazine) Find it here on Amazon
  7. This anthology is a collection from a writers workshop in East London. As such is has been designed to showcase the writing coming out of this workshop, and so is a very mixed anthology. This isn’t just a collection of short stories only, or just poetry or only essays. This collection contains many different styles of writing. There are short stories here, but also poetry, essays and even drabbles (100 word stories). The strength here is this collection’s variety. If you don’t want to read poetry or an essay, then the next piece is something different. And there is a lot of variety here, there’s twenty-eight different pieces of writing in this collection. There are certainly highlights here. Belgin Durmush’s short story is a surreal satire on dysfunctional committees, while George Tsappis’s story finds the humanity in less than a glorious time for the British occupiers of 1940’s Cyprus. The poems here span many different styles. Frank Crocker’s poems are pithy and humorous, revolving around one subject or another. George Fuller’s poems paint lyrical pictures of different events and places. Dharma Paul’s poems engage the mind and emotions. But the standout poems here are Deborah Collins’s, both lyrically and memorably, captures the strange and disjointed world of East London during lockdown. And there are Paul Butler’s drabbles. He uses 100 words to tell his concise and sharply funny stories. This anthology is full of different and new writing, it is a chance to find some new authors from East London, and is read that can be dipped in and out of, or read in one or two sittings. Find something original here. Find it here on Amazon
  8. Hercule Poirot is ill, he is dying, and he invites his old friend, Arthur Hastings, to stay with him at the Styles guesthouse, for one, last investigation. Poirot, though now an invalid, is chasing his one last case, a serial killer with a terrible modus operandi, known only as X. Here Christie returned to the location of the very first Poirot novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, except this is not the glamorous life of the upper-class people who filled Christie’s novels of the 1930s and 1940s. Styles is now a rundown guest house, providing a home to a mis-match of paying guests. Its rundown and washed-up feel suits the feeling of the end of a life and a career, Poirot’s. Hastings is also older and somewhat wiser, but he is now a widower and lost without his wife, especially as his daughter is also caught up in this mystery. Written during the Second World War, though not published until the 1970s, at the end of Christie’s life, this book has a darker and more psychological feel to her novels of the 1930s and 1940s. Here the book concentrates on its characters and their personalities rather than on a tightly constructed plot, the plot coming more from the characters than an elaborate method of getting away with murder. It has a much darker and downbeat feel and yet benefits from it. The cast of characters are full of the types of personalities Christie would explore more in her post-war novels. Gone is the old maid, the doctor, the artist and the young lovers. Here she concentrates more on what led her characters to end up in this place, and their characterisation is so much better for it. She does fall back on one of her favourite characters, one that appeared so many times in other novels of hers, the no-nonsense nurse who is very professional in her work, and yet is no mere doctor’s handmaiden. At the heart of this novel, though, is a dying Poirot, and it is such a heart-felt and moving portrayal. Many times, later in her life, Christie expressed her frustration at Poirot’s character, but here she gives him both an affectionate portrayal and a fascinating last case to solve. She also gives him an ending where he cannot be brought back, Poirot dies. I first read this novel as a teenager and I could not believe anyone could have used this method to commit murder. Re-reading it, as an adult, the method of murder seems all to real and all too chilling. A person could take a lot of pleasure from using this method of murder, and Christie shows her understanding of her characters, how easily they can be seduced by their own prejudices, even Captain Hastings. Though a very different novel in tone, this is certainly a classic Christie, showing her understanding of people and their dark desires. It is also a very fine ending for Poirot’s stella career, he ends on a high, not with a sad fadeout. Find it here on Amazon
  9. Ruth Rendell was known for her dark psychological thrillers, but she also wrote many short stories, throughout her career. This was her first collection of them, many of which had been previously published in different magazines. At her best, she always had a feel and understanding for character, especially people caught up in events greater than themselves. Here are several short stories that showcase that ability. She captures characters both on the edge of society and those who are bastions of it. These are also the best stories here, were Rendell writes about a character caught up in a situation, with tragic ends. Rendell uses the twist-in-the-tale format for some of these stories, unfortunately it only sometimes works, other times the twist is so obvious that it is a wonder she completed the story. This collection was originally published in 1976, with the stories all written before then, and many of the attitudes in these stories haven’t aged well. Attitudes to mental illness, child abduction and sexism depicted here do creek with age. The pleasure of this collection, though, is in Rendall’s understanding of character, and at its best it is fascinating. Find it here on Amazon
  10. A Nobleman's guide to seducing a scoundrel by KJ Charles My rating: 4 out of 5 stars One of many things to love about KJ Charles' books is how anchored they are in their particular historical period. She doesn't hit you around the head with facts, or elevate research over plot. Instead, we join A Nobleman's guide to seducing a scoundrel in the early 1820s when Gothic novels are still the rage, medievalism is becoming an academic study, the Napoleonic Wars are over, and smugglers now operate largely above board. This isn't historical decoration. Rufus d'Aumesty, the new, disputed Earl of Oxney, spent more than a decade in the army and it's formed who he is. Luke Doomsday is a confidential secretary who's apparently left behind his days of belonging to Romney Marsh's foremost smuggling clan. They meet at the start of the novel in a maze of a house dating back to Norman times, both embroiled in a succession dispute worthy of Dickens. Luke becomes the earl's right hand man as they both seek to right years' worth of estate neglect. At first, Luke's interest in the job appears genuine. Then we get hints otherwise, even as he and the new Earl fall for each other. Another thing to love about KJ Charles’ writing is how she quietly acknowledges that queer individuals have always existed. That they not only existed, but tried to make full, loving lives for themselves. Finally, Luke is discovered at night somewhere he shouldn't be and everything goes full-on Gothic. Think 'Northanger Abbey' or 'Melmoth the wanderer' - all dark and stormy with strange, shadowed buildings, crazed, vengeful relatives, and a lone hero(ine) struggling against the odds to save themselves and solve the mystery. Of course, the clouds clear and the sun comes out at the end. No matter how hard KJ Charles makes you (and her characters) work and suffer, there’s always a happy ending. This is great fun and a worthy sequel to The Secret lives of country gentlemen. If you read this book first, it doesn't matter. KJ Charles has been very clever in linking both books firmly together but also making it possible to read them separately.
  11. It’s the suburbs in the 1970s, and two teenage lads, Enn and Vic, go to a teenage party to meet girls. Vic is the charming and handsome boy, who is always successful with the girls, while Enn is tongue-tied and awkward around them. At this party Vic pushes Enn to talk to them, to finally have some success with the opposite sex, but the girls at this party are amazing and so easy to talk to. This short story is a showcase for Neil Gaiman’s storytelling skills and his otherworldly imagination. Enn, who narrates this story, is almost a perfect picture of teenage angst. Vic is that teenage boy who every other boy wants to be friends with, he’s handsome and able to talk to girls. But what is most memorable here are the girls at the party, both beautiful and otherworldly, but it is their otherworldliness is so memorable. They talk like people who do not understand this world, but not in a bad science-fiction way. Their otherworldliness feels so right and within character for them, and yet each girl is different too, none of them having quite the same otherworldliness. It is these girls that make this story memorable and lifts it into a strange and interesting tale. This is only a short story, easily read in one sitting, but it is a fine example of Gaiman’s writing. If you haven’t read any of his writing before, then this is a great introduction. If you know his work well, then it is a great way to spend some time in his world. Gaiman’s strength has always been that he has a wonderful imagination and combines it with great storytelling skills. Here is an easily readable story of his. Find it here on Amazon
  12. It is 1976 and Mary Ann Singleton changes her visit to San Francisco into a permanent move. Naïve from her sheltered live in Cleveland, she wants a new life in The City. She finds an apartment at 28 Barbary Lane, and gets drawn into the found family her landlady, Mrs Madrigal, has created from the other tenants there. There is bohemian Mona Ramsey, gay Michael "Mouse" Tolliver and womanising Brian Hawkins. Though we are introduced into this by Mary Ann, this isn’t her story alone. Soon we are following the different lives of the residents of 28 Barbary Lane. Armistead Maupin’s stroke of genius was to set this story within a household of apartments and the tenants who live there, with their unconventional mother-figure in Mrs Madrigal. Through their lives he could write about the different aspects of San Francisco life in the 1970s. The other genius is that not just Maupin populated this novel with a large number of LGBT characters but that he treated them the same as all the other characters. They don’t come to sordid ends or end in pathetic suicides, they just have as messy and complicated lives as the straight characters. This novel was originally written as a newspaper serial and its style still reflects that, short and episodic scenes that rely on dialog, rather than description, to build character and atmosphere. This creates a fast-paced read, peppered frequently with jokes, but from time-to-time I did want a few passages of description just to slow down the pace and give me a moment to breath. This isn’t a historical novel, it was written in the 1970s and gloriously reflects the times. This isn’t a story about bright colours and brighter pop music. It explores the social change and different lifestyles that the 1960s had hinted at. It reminds us how important the 1970s were, especially if you are LGBT. Unfortunately, it does portray some of the 1970’s sexual politics that we now find questionable, it was a different time. Maupin wasn’t the first author to write a multi-character, multi-plot novel, but what he did was fill his novel with characters that had previously not been given a central role, and to portray them in an honest, open and non-sensational way. For so many LGBT people, of a certain age, this was a revolutionary novel. And today, it is still a novel that can hold a reader’s attention for a fascinating journey, with a lot of good jokes along the way. Find it here on Amazon
  13. This is a slim volume, just one short story, The Part-Time Job, and an essay, Murder Most Fowl, but it’s a perfect quick read as an eBook. The Part-Time Job is a story about revenge and murder. The unnamed narrator was bullied at school by Keith Manston-Green and at twelve vowed to kill him. The rest of the story is how he achieves this. As a motive for murder this might seem petty and trivial but to anyone whose school days were blighted by bullying will identify with this narrator’s actions, though may not agree with them. But this is a very pedestrian plot, the narrator achieves his goal in a rather obvious way. What lifts this story is the unexpected and dark twist at the end. If you stay reading to the end, then you are rewarded with a very dark and satisfying ending. Murder Most Fowl is an essay about why James wrote mystery crime novels, and this is a real gem. She doesn’t write about how she writes, where she finds her plots and inspiration. Instead she writes about why she writes in mystery/crime genre and what she hopes to achieve doing that. It also gives an interesting reading list of her favourite authors, what she enjoyed from their books. PD James was an amazingly talented author, whose novels were always more than just about the puzzle of who the murder is. Her novels also explored different and interesting themes, underneath her murder plots. Like so many great authors, after her death there seemed a rush to publish the remainder of her unpublished work, the short stories and essays that had been published in magazines and newspapers, but were never published in book form. This slight volume is a product of this. James was always a great writer, even here, but this book is more for the PD James fan, it isn’t a place to first discover her work, there are several of her novels that are better for that, but this book is still an interesting read. Find it here on Amazon
  14. Book Details Title: Tears of the Neko Author: Taylor Ryan Publisher: Self Published Length: 439 print pages Blurb: A younger brother buys his brother, the Duke and heir to the throne, a surprising gift for his brother's birthday--a young, very skittish neko slave. But ,Damien has no use for a personal slave. But a bet with his two younger brothers has Damien keeping the boy at his side as a matter of pride. When attempts on his life begin, Damien discovers just how protective the cat-like human can be. This is the story of a young neko who wasn't given the choice to become a slave. Having been captured by hunters who killed his parents and sell slaves illegally to the mines, Kayden grew up with the hunters torturing him into submission, until they finally sold him six years later to a slave market. It is here where the young neko is bought on a whim by a peer of the realm as a birthday gift--and his life begins to change. Buy Link Amazon About the author Taylor Ryan is the pen name for Sharon Hunter's M/M novels. She also writes young adult fiction as well. She lives in the northeast with her two daughters and her husband as well as their many sugar gliders. She loves reading as much as she loves to write, and she also works as an editor for other authors. Visit her at Gayauthors.org Or on Goodreads My Review First let me say I love this story. It was the first one by this author that I read and I have now read all of her work. The characters are wonderful. From the beginning you will fall in love with Kayden. With everything he has been through before the story starts, and everything he goes through during, you can’t help but want to gather him up and protect him from the big bad world around him. Damien is lovely, but, he is so buried in his work that he doesn’t even really take notice of Kayden at first. There are points when I wanted to reach into the book and smack him round the back of the head. Harrison is the typical little brother, however, I do think he sees more than others give him credit for. And of course lastly you have Roman…well let’s just say he would be better minus certain parts of his anatomy and leave it at that, shall we??? I’ll let you come to your own conclusion about him when you read the story. My favorite bit had to be Kayden playing with shaving cream, I could almost imagine it in my mind. I laughed so hard. Overall a great story full of ups and downs.
  15. 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
  16. 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
  17. 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
  18. “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
  19. 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.
  20. 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
  21. 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?
  22. 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.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. 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.
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