Over 550 book reviews with full author links

28 October 2013

Tony Park: The Prey

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Mayhem in modern day Southern Africa
This time in "The Prey", Australian author Tony Park takes us to modern day Southern Africa with a story of powerplay, lawlessness, violence, and the continued influence of the civil wars of the fairly recent past, set against a background of the perils of underground mining and the beauty of the African bush and its wildlife.

The Eureka mine, owned by Australian based mining giant Global Resources, is one of the largest and most successful deep underground gold mines in South Africa. The mine has many disused mineshafts and tunnels from earlier days where the "zama zamas" illegally hunt for gold under the brutal control of Wellington Shumba, a product of the many violent civil wars in Southern Africa. During a hunt for the illegal miners operating close to Eureka's current operations, 2 security guards are killed and Chris Loubser, responsible for mine safety, is kidnapped by Wellington to help him improve the safety of his illegal operations.

Global Resources is facing another battle in South Africa where their proposal to develop a huge open cut coal mine in a private game area just outside the Kruger National Park is coming under a strong environmental publicity attack from Tertia Venter who operates a tourist park in that pristine area.

Kylie Hamilton, high flying Executive General Manager, Health, Safety, and Environment is sent to by her Australian based South African CEO, Jan Stein, to manage the response to the kidnapping and the proposal for the new mine. There she meets former recce commando Cameron McMurtrie, the tough but efficient manager of Eureka and gets involved with him in the rescue of Loubser and the elimination of the "zama zamas".

The story then becomes rapidly moving and sometimes a bit unbelievable thriller as Kylie and Cameron hunt down Wellington at the same time as Wellington hunts down, kills and kidnaps. When the mine is closed down by the unions for environmental safety reasons Wellington virtually takes over the whole underground operations.

At first I found the idea of illegal miners operating close to a large mining operation to be a bit far fetched until I learned that in mid 2009 over 80 illegal miners operating in old workings of the Harmony Gold mine were killed in an underground explosion. To alleviate their economic distress, many unemployed, independent and redundant miners are operating illegally in old workings throughout Southern Africa under unsafe conditions.

I am a great fan of Tony Park and have enjoyed all of his adventure stories of Africa. While I enjoyed this book, IMHO this one was not as good as the others because it focussed more on sometimes unbelievable actions and less on the Africa that Park loves and knows and loves so well.

25 October 2013

Judy Nunn: Just South of Rome

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Charming and amusing short story
This is a charming short story which showcases Judy Nunn's writing skills with an experience that probably goes back to her time as a soapy TV star.

Janie is a soapy star taking a trip to England to star in a winter pantomime, hopeful of getting a break into the West End afterwards. Before going to England she plans to see a bit of Europe, especially Italy, and Roland, an older very good friend, suggests that "You must go to my friend's restaurant. It's just south of Rome."

Janie does visit the restaurant but can't contact the friend. Most of the hotels nearby are full and she finds the only room available is at the Hotel Visconti, an apparently expensive hotel in a grand eighteenth-century villa that is really outside her budget. There she meets the owner of the hotel, Umberto Visconti, who insists in showing her around the hotel. What follows is right out of Fawlty Towers (the classic UK TV comedy series about a dysfunctional hotel). All that is missing is Manuel, the Spanish waiter constantly abused by Basil Fawlty.

When Janie gets to the restaurant the chef has just walked out and she has to share tasteless pasta which has been overcooked for a group of loud-mouthed American tourists. There is no wine list and Umberto serves her a bottle of what purports to be expensive Burgundy, There is no cork and the wine tastes like "Château Cardboard".

The hotel is staffed by a group of similarly strange but kind people who are almost totally under Visconti's influence. The only saving grace is Stefano, the Americans' tour guide who provides an unexpected romantic interlude. Stefano unfolds the background to Umberto and how he runs Hotel (which is so parallel to Basil Fawlty that it made me laugh at the comparisons).

Judy Nunn has written this short story in e-book format as a promotion for her forthcoming new book "Elianne" and the first couple of chapters of that book are at the end of the Kindle version of this short story. I much prefer this kind of promotion (at a cost of a couple of dollars) to the "Read the first few chapters for free" one because you do get to see something more about the author's skills.

I have been privileged to be able to read the full version of "Elianne" ahead of it publication at the beginning of November 2013. It is an enjoyable a family saga based on the history the early days of the Queensland sugar industry.

24 October 2013

Russell Blake: Black

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A great new, amusing character
Russell Blake has written a host of action-packed thrillers of all kinds. There was only one  - Geronimo Breach with "Al the Slob" - that gave a hint that Blake could write a book tinged with humour and self-deprecation. This is until he started to write this series about Artemus Black, a down-and-out PI immersed in the unreal world of Los Angeles entertainment make believe. Black is a great character and I hope he will be around for some time.

Much of this first book in the series is taken up with great character building of Black, his friends and his world in the make believe of Hollywood. Black leaves a spell in the military with a bad anger management complex and never seems to eliminate his anger or succeed in business. He becomes a songwriter and part of a band that is destined to be huge, but has to leave the band when he gets into an angry bar fight and breaks his hand the week before the beginning of a big tour. To pay his bills he signs over the rights to his songs (which go on became great hits) to his wife who has an affair with the attorney who winds up handling the inevitable divorce. After that he moved from one business failure to another, one of the best being his limousine service for the stars featuring his trademark hot pink stretched Humvee. He is then down to driving a 20 year old Cadillac convertible that threatens to break down at any time.

While Black is going through each day with the world against him, without any real effort his parents become mega-rich and his ex-wife tops the charts. As a last resort Black sets up his shingle as a PI in a dingy office, and just manages to make ends meet from day-to-day with small investigations. His only help is Roxie, a young hippy, smart but no-hoper receptionist. Even Mugsy, his stray cat believes that he is a soft touch and moves in and takes over his office. Blake shows us an, unfortunately very amusing, picture of a smart and basically very kind character who goes through each day believing that the world will always be against him.

At a time when Black is at the end of his emotional and financial tether he gets referred by a friend to provide security assistance to Andrew Hunter, one of the richest actor/director celebrities in Hollywood. Hunter has battled for years against personal attacks by the scandal sheet paparazzi. This time one of his budding young stars crashes on a mountain road after being chased by a van driven by paparazzi. Then a couple of paparazzi who sneak into a building to photograph Hunter in a key meeting about his new make-or-break film are blown up in a storage room.

Black shows that he has the skills to track down what is happening and uncovers a tangled web of deceit and hatred. Whenever he seems to be getting somewhere things turn against him and he is left to battle on his own. At the same time he shows basic kindness and understanding to most of the people he is trying to help.

It is interesting to me that Russell Blake has chosen a first name for his hero that he dislikes and nobody uses except his elderly still hippy parents. This has many similarities to Michael Connelly's famous detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch.

Russell Blake has made an interesting change of tack with this PI series with a character who is really funny in a sad kind of way. One good book doesn't make a successful series but I think the ingredients are there to make me want to follow Black in his further adventures in the unreal world of LA entertainment.

21 October 2013

Colleen McCullough: Bittersweet

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Enjoyable family saga
The four Latimer sisters had always been close even though they were 2 sets of twins from different mothers. Edda and Grace lost their mother in childbirth and after a very short time their father, Rector of St Mark's Church of England, Corunda, NSW, married his (unpleasant and dominating) housekeeper, Maude and within 2 years there was another set of twins, Tufts and Kitty in the household. At the beginning of the book the four sisters are about to set out independently in life for the first time and become the first registered nurse trainees at the local hospital.

While they cherish their independent lives, at first things are pretty harsh with a very strict Matron and a wealthy hospital run by a skinflint Superintendent. While they survive by helping one another, each girl has their own battles to fight which quickly sorts out the differences between the girls and their ambitions. Things change when Dr. Charles Burdum, a very rich English relation of one of the district's wealthiest graziers, takes over as Superintendent and shakes up the hospital and its staff. After an upper class English upbringing, Charles' adjustment to life in Australia as 'Charlie the Pommy' is very amusing.

Each sister makes their own very different decisions about their future careers and partners. Kitty, who has been spoiled and pampered by her mother, is the first one to meet Charles on a train from Melbourne when he invades the privacy of her railway compartment. Despite her first greeting - "Piss off you presumptuous little twerp" - Charles believes that someone with Kitty's beauty would make him a perfect wife.

The story covers the start of the Great Depression that affects everyone in different ways and to different degrees. While each of the sisters face their own challenges and sufferings, the bond between them never falters. They conclude that "Nothing is so sweet that there's no tinge of bitter in it."

It has been a while since I have read any books by prolific writer Colleen McCullough, mainly because I was distracted by her scholarly but IMHO difficult and uninspiring "Masters of Rome" series. McCullough is still a great storyteller, especially of family sagas.  While I found the character of Charles a bit over the top and unbelievable, overall I enjoyed and can recommend "Bittersweet". It is not clear if there will be a sequel but the ending seemed to leave scope for visiting the lives of the sisters later on in their lives.

19 October 2013

Scott Turow: Identical

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Clever and well plotted "Whodunnit"
While there are some courtroom scenes this is not your normal Scott Thurow legal thriller. It is a very clever "Whodunnit" using the theme of identical twins, mistaken identities and family feuds.

Cass and Paul Giannis are identical twins, and in 1982 one is a police cadet and the other a budding lawyer. They attend a party at the house of their father's greatest rival, Zeus Kronon, who is the father of Dita, Cass's girlfriend. That night Dita is murdered and the crime scene is compromised by the Kronons' actions and poor police procedures. Blood of a different type to Dita's is at the scene because someone broke a window but in 1982 there is only blood typing, no DNA matching. After a poor police and FBI investigation, Cass comes forward and confesses and hopes to get a plea bargain for 10 years in a low security prison. Zeus agrees to the latter but argues for and gets a 20 year sentence.

Roll on 20 years and Cass is coming up for parole after being an almost perfect prisoner. Paul's career has blossomed into the State Senate and he is in the middle of a campaign for Mayor. By that time Hal Kronon, Dita's brother has become mega-rich and has never forgiven the twins for what he believes is their perceived complicity in the crime. Hal unsuccessfully appeals against parole and publicly accuses Paul of aiding in the murder which tarnishes Paul's election hopes. Hal also hires an ex FBI agent and a PI (who was a homicide detective on the original case) to reopen the murder case on their own. Their story is also crucial to the plot.

The first few chapters set the scene for a family feud, a political bun-fight and a re-examination of the crime using modern technology to see if the correct person was convicted of the murder. But this is not really central the case because the major action happens later, especially with some astounding revelations about halfway and so many twists and turns that I had to revisit the last few chapters to really understand what had happened and what was unfolding.

Scott Turow has taken the themes of identical twins and Greek family dynasties and built a most enjoyable "Whodunnit" which keeps you guessing right to the end.

16 October 2013

Thomas Keneally: Daughters of Mars

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Remarkable book about remarkable events
This is an epic novel written by a talented novelist about one of the most horrific conflicts in modern history. I have read a lot of novels based on WWI but this one has some of the most searing scenes outside of the battlefield written with totally researched detail and great emotion. Other books look directly at actions of war - this one looks at the consequences of war through the eyes of two sisters from Australia who nurse the wounded off Gallipoli and on the Western Front.

The Durrance sisters, Naomi and Sally, were born in the Macleay Valley of NSW. The eldest, Naomi, leaves home to become a nurse in Sydney while Sally stays home and becomes a nurse at a local hospital. They briefly come together again when their mother is dying of cancer and share a common bond with her death that should bring them together.

At the outbreak of war both sisters enrol as nurses and move from the cosy backwater of rural Australia to Egypt, and to a hospital ship operating off Gallipoli which gets sunk by torpedoes. After surviving the sinking they both move to different medical facilities on the Western Front. There is still no strong bond between the sisters until Naomi suggests that they should become friends. While they become closer as the war continues, Naomi observes later that the war itself becomes "a machine to make us true sisters".

The nursing action encompasses all the destructive elements of modern warfare on the human body, plus the awful damage from different kinds of gas, and shell-shock (not recognised at the time by the medical and military fraternity and labelled "Not Yet Diagnosed") plus the destructive forces of Spanish Flu that kills so many from 1918 onwards.

While nurses of all allied nations are the key players, Keneally introduces us to a couple of memorable characters. Matron Mitchie from Australia, a practical and approachable leader at a time when Matrons' ruled their nurses in a military manner, and Lady Tarlton, the wife of an English aristocrat who has strong Australian connections, who organises her own voluntary hospital on the Western Front using every contact she has in the establishment plus her own money and organising skills to make it happen.

This is historical literary fiction of  the first order. This tale is skilfully written, sometimes with excruciating detail. There are a few warts in the story but not enough to affect my emphatic 5 star rating. At first I found the writing a bit difficult to follow because Keneally mostly uses quotation-less dialogue but I quickly realised that this allowed him to describe action and interaction faster and more easily. Keneally leaves us with a strange literary effect with a double ending which is a bit difficult to grasp.

One of the most remarkable things about this remarkable book is that it was written when Keneally was in his mid 70's.  I am following a number of popular authors much younger than Keneally who have either run out of ideas or their work has run out of steam. He has certainly not run out of steam and I look forward to reading his next book, Shame and the Captives, about WWII POW's held in Australia to be released at the end of October 2013.

11 October 2013

William Boyd: Solo

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A new look at James Bond
Confession: While I read a lot of thrillers I can't remember if I ever read any of the 12 original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming and I have probably fallen asleep in most James Bond movies that are re-run regularly on pay TV. I prefer to read about a character in a book as most thriller movies sensationalise the heroes and make them do impossible things.

William Boyd is the latest novelist to write James Bond continuation works (the most notable being Sebastian Faulks and Jeffrey Deaver). Boyd approaches this according to the chronology of his Bond's life set by Fleming where Bond was born in 1924 and the action takes place in the the late 1960's. This makes things much more believable to me.

The renowned "M" sends Bond on a solo job to assassinate a rebel leader and stop a civil war in an African country where vast oil deposits have just been discovered. Bond has to travel to the heart of the war on his own without much understanding of the country or what is happening. Of course, along the way, he gets romantically involved with a couple of beautiful women, one of them an agent apparently sent to help him. Of course there is the prime baddie, Kobus, a battle scarred Rhodesian mercenary with a penchant for extreme violence. There is more to the plot than just stopping the war and when the story moves to America things get a bit unbelievable.

All in all I enjoyed this book because Boyd brings back the real Bond who is an intelligent and effective intelligence agent, not a super hero.  While there is plenty of action it is not over the top and reasonably believable. This is a James Bond who enjoys his food and liquor, fast cars (this time a V8 Jenson Interceptor GT car built at that time), and of course beautiful women.

Sandra Brown: Low Pressure

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Suspenseful and entertaining
Eighteen years ago Bellamy Lyston Price was only 12 years old when she was involved in a family trauma from which she had never fully recovered. The day started with a Memorial Day party staged by her parents at a local park and ended in tragedy when a Tornado struck the park and her elder sister Susan was found dead under a fallen tree. The real tragedy was that Susan had been killed before the storm struck.

Denton Carter, Susan's boyfriend at the time of her death, had quarrelled with her that day. Despite being the most probable suspect he is cleared by the police. Another boy at the party who had been chasing Susan was charged and convicted. Bellamy suspects that the wrong person may have been found guilty of the murder.

Eighteen years on Bellamy writes a "fictional" novel based on the murder in an attempt to reopen the case and find the murderer. As her book becomes popular strange things happen and she realises that she has opened up things from the past that some people don't want exposed. Surprisingly Dent gets drawn into the action and helps Bellamy to uncover the truth.

This book shows why Sandra Brown is such a successful suspense novelist.  The plot has many twists and turns and distractions and includes some enjoyable romantic tension between the Bellamy and Dent. The only things that become clear before the ending is who didn't murder Susan.

08 October 2013

Melanie Benjamin: The Aviator's Wife

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Unforgettable Fictional Biography
This is a fictional biography of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, the wife of Charles Lindbergh, the first person to fly across the Atlantic. Fictional biography is not my normal genre but "The Aviator's Wife" is unforgettable fictional biography. What makes it even more remarkable is how skillfully Melanie Benjamin told the very personal story of one of the most remarkable women of the 20th Century.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh was an extraordinary woman to be able to attract Charles Lindbergh, the greatest US hero of the 1920's. The press flocked after Lindbergh making his public and private life a misery. He was probably hounded by the press throughout his life more than anyone in history than Princess Diana. When Anne married Charles and joined that misery she didn't realise what that would ultimately involve.

I didn't realise that Anne was as physically courageous as Lindbergh when she was his "crew" as co-pilot and navigator on many of the pioneering flights that he made after his Atlantic crossing. She was an even more personally courageous person for living with and supporting a person for so many years who was one of the greatest control freaks of all time and continued to make her life a misery right up to the time of his death.

Anne's greatest misery was the kidnapping and murder of her first child. This would be catastrophic for any mother, but it was made worse because it happened under intense public spotlight. After the kidnapping she brought up five more children without much support from Lindbergh in a basically dysfunctional home. Despite this she followed and supported Lindbergh through thick and thin as he roamed the globe prior to the war, especially his contentious close association with Germany and his opposition to America getting involved in the war.

Eventually and wonderfully, in middle age Anne found herself and discovered a life of love and understanding where she was in no one's shadow.

When I read a book on Kindle I highlight parts that I want to remember - this book had more highlights than almost any book I have read. I highly recommend this "true" story of pain and triumph that will remain with you for a long time.

06 October 2013

Judy Nunn: Elianne

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The good and bad of Australia's past
In her more recent novels Judy Nunn has written some important "factional" novels about key times and places in Australia's past. This time Judy combines a look at Queensland sugar farming and processing in the late 19th century, with the divisive influence of the Vietnam War and the transformation of Australian society in the 1960's and 1970's into a more tolerant and cosmopolitan society.

 "Big Jim" Durham is a "blackbirder" who employs low wage South Sea Islanders ("Kanakas") as indentured workers on his cane plantations near Bundaberg. In 1881 Big Jim goes to New Caledonia and returns to his Queensland sugar mill and plantations near Bundaberg with his beautiful young French wife Elianne Desmarais. To show his "love" for his wife he names the business "Elianne" and builds a substantial house for his expected large family. While Big Jim is a dominating patriarch who rules his business and family with a rod of iron, his marriage to Ellie is seen to be one of  apparent unquestioned love and support for Jim over the years of success and great tragedy.

Moving on to the 1960's there have been big changes in the sugar industry with mechanised cane cutting and post-war migrants from Italy holding down key jobs. Despite this Big Jim's grandson, "Stan the Man" models himself on his grandfather, reveres his grandmother Ellie and runs the business in the Big Jim's way. Stan's children, Kate, Neil and Alan, deal with their dominating father and his mercurial temper in different ways as they make their way in a rapidly changing world. Kate defies Stan and goes to University in Sydney instead of Brisbane, and gets involved with Aboriginal rights issues and the Referendum. At a time when Australia is "All the way with LBJ" Neil gets caught by the conscription ballot and goes to Vietnam. Alan prepares to defy his father in a way that could block him from the family forever.

Everything changes for Kate when she finds Ellie's diaries (written in French for secrecy) days before Stan demolishes the original Elianne homestead because this is cheaper than maintaining the old building. What she discovers could rock the foundations of her family, and especially Stan who might be the most vulnerable of all of them.

I really enjoy Judy Nunn's well researched historical novels. As a relatively new Queenslander I didn't know much about the blackbirder era (which I first read about in Peter Watts' great Frontier series). Despite living through the Vietnam War era I was not aware that at the same time the Holt government was responsible for the first big step in removing the White Australia policy.

Despite a fairly slow start and a couple of over-the-top dominating characters, Judy Nunn didn't disappoint me and has written another important book about the good and bad of Australia's past.

My thanks to The Reading Room for providing an Advanced Reading Copy of this book.

03 October 2013

John Gilstrap: Soft Targets

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A new or old prequel?
FBI Special Agent Irene Rivers is horrified to learn that because of mistakes by agents under her command a murderer and child molester has been able to walk free. Irene is devastated with this happening on her watch but is even more devastated when she goes home and finds her two girls are missing and a note saying if you contact the FBI "I will know and I will kill them".

Surprisingly the first person she contacts is a best friend Dom who has just become a Catholic priest. Even more surprisingly Dom tells her to wait and he will find someone who can help her. This is the first time that Irene will meet covert operators extraordinaire, Jonathan Grave (Digger) and his close companion Boxer (Big Guy). Irene then gets her first lesson about how the bad guys can be dealt with outside the legal system that she has served for so many years.

This is the first of the series of action-packed escapist special ops thrillers featuring Jonathan Grave so you could call it a prequel, especially as it is only novella length. What is not clear to me is whether Gilstrap wrote this novella recently as a prequel to tell us more about the early history of Digger and Irene (many other authors are doing this kind of thing to spice up a long running series) or whether it is a release of an earlier unpublished book that has not been edited to bring it up to date. I think it is the latter because the book has lots of dated things mixed into the action, dot matrix printers, buying a map, and incredulity when Digger produces a pocket sized cell phone.

01 October 2013

J A Jance: Ring In the Dead: A J. P. Beaumont Novella

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Early days for J. P. Beaumont
This is an easy reading novella that gives an interesting look back at Beau's early days as a Detective in the Seattle PD. It is a very good introduction to Second Watch (#20 in the series) released recently where an ageing Beau recovering from knee replacement surgery reflects on an early case that he has never solved.

"Pickles" Gurkey was unhappy when his partner was promoted and he had to train a new one, Jonas P Beaumont (or JP or Beau to his friends). They weren't very close until Pickles had a heart attack while confronting an offender who had left a restaurant without paying. Pickles collapses and the offender shoots the waitress who has also followed him using Pickle's gun. Internal affairs is convinced that Pickles shot the waitress and charged him with manslaughter when he recovered. This novella tells how Beau takes up the case unofficially on his own to clear his partner.

This is a well crafted short story that fills in some early background on how Beau becomes such a great detective.