Over 550 book reviews with full author links

28 February 2015

James Phelan: The Hunted

Surprisingly good military/terrorist thriller
This is a surprisingly good military/terrorist thriller - there are so many books in this genre but this one stands out because it is different. It also has a great "hero" who could give Lee Child's Jack Reacher a run for his money.

Jed Hunter has been an Air Force SEAL, a CIA operative and is now working for an elite UN team of multinational investigators on loan from the world's best law enforcement and intelligence communities. He is big, strong, and dangerous - he can take on many tough players and win - a bit of a Jack Reacher but probably more strategically intelligent.

Something is out of control. It is called "Zodiac" and somewhere there are 12 cells waiting to carry out attacks that will do great harm to America. The real reason they are out of control is that the cells don't know about the other cells. All they know is that they become active after an attack by another cell is successful or thwarted.

In THE SPY (which I have yet to read) Hunter helped to thwart an attack on the New York Stock Exchange. Hunter has just come back from the dead when he disappeared for a while to avoid danger after that attack. His father, who may have floated the idea of Zodiac when he was with the CIA, is also reported dead but Jed believes he is in hiding somewhere and can lead him to the next cell.

Someone has been killing members of the SEAL team that killed Bin Laden and there is only one left, holed up in a remote mountain area near the border of Arkansas and Missouri. Hunter and his team have to find him before others do.

This is a fast action, adrenaline packed page-turning adventure that keeps you on the edge of your seat as Hunter tries to find the last SEAL and prevent another major terrorist attack. Phelan writes great tightly worded action-packed prose with short chapters moving from one action zone to another. At times it was hard to keep up with the many organisations and people who were part of the action - the UN, FBI, CIA, military, MI5 and the rogue cell members, some of whom are part of the other organisations.

Of course, whatever happens Zodiac will automatically awaken another cell for another terror plot.

This is the first time I had read a book by Melbourne based author James Phalen and I was very impressed by his ability to write a nail-biting and different book in this genre. Although the action precedes this book I intend to read THE SPY to give me a better perspective of Zodiac and Hunter.

My thanks to The Reading Room and Hachette Australia for a copy of this book for my review.

27 February 2015

Jeffrey Archer: Mightier than the Sword (The Clifton Chronicles series Book 5)

Enough, enough, enough - Cliftons without end...
When I read the first book in the Clifton Chronicles series it was an amusing, light and somewhat clever tale that looked like the start of an entertaining trilogy. Jeffrey Archer ended each book with interesting cliffhanger endings to keep your attention on the next book. Little did I know that nearly five years later I would be reading #5 in the series - and it looks like there are several more to come!

I read a lot of latest books in long series and always ask myself "Has the author run out of steam with the latest book?". In this case my answer is a solid yes. This book recycles so many plots in different guises from previous books, getting rid of a few key characters along the way to make things look a little different, but keeping most of the main characters and their conflicts alive and adding a few new ones, mainly baddies.

At the end of the last book the cliffhanger was whether an IRA bomb would explode on the liner Buckingham in mid-Atlantic. Of course that danger was cleared up early on and the baddies, both IRA bombers and Don Pedro Martinez, were quickly dispatched out of the story.

Harry Clifton is still writing very successful detective novels but gets involved in an unbelievable campaign, which he kicks off in Moscow, for the release of an author from a Russian jail who wrote a  banned biography of Stalin. As Chairman, Emma battles to keep the Barrington Steamship Company afloat with Lady Virginia Fenwick still causing problems, and using Major Alex Fisher and other unscrupulous characters to implement her schemes.

Giles Barrington is a junior minister in Harold Wilson's first government and fights for his political life when the government falls. Sebastian is quickly becoming the financial brains of the Clifton family and gets involved in some interesting but strange financial intrigues.

This book only spans the years 1964 to 1970 which gives Jeffrey Archer scope for a host of future chronicles. While I admire Archer as a great storyteller I am tired of the Clifton/Barrington story line and the unusual and unbelievable lengths that he has gone to keep the story alive. I doubt that I will want to read any further chronicles.

23 February 2015

Ken Follett: Winter of the World (The Century Trilogy, Book 2)

A very lengthy epic saga
Ken Follett took on a major task when he started a trilogy about the 20th century seen through the eyes of families from various countries - this time from America, Germany, Russia, England, and Wales. The first in the trilogy, FALL OF THE GIANTS was a huge (slightly disappointing) read at 850 pages and this one was similarly huge, so much that I put it aside for a couple of years until I could find the time to absorb such a giant book.

I wasn't disappointed when I did find the time but I wasn't ecstatic. I have read a lot of books focussing on different parts of the same terrible times and they probably gave me a better canvas overall than the single canvas that Follett attempted.

Follett takes us through the build up to WWII and into the war in Europe and then in the Pacific seen through the eyes of a diverse group of characters, many of which are related or who knew one another before the war. IMHO he goes a bit far in trying to get interesting characters and put them into key places during these chilling and dangerous times.

I recently read THE WINDS OF WAR and WAR AND REMEMBRANCE by Herman Wouk which gives an American take on the same events covered by this book. Those books will stay in my Classic Epic Sagas collection but I am not sure if this one will go into that collection.

Colleen McCullough: The Ladies of Missalonghi

A short farewell to Colleen
This short novel by Colleen McCullough was published as an e-book few days ago but I discovered that was first published in 1987. Nevertheless it was a delightful way to say a short goodbye to Colleen, who passed away on 29 January 2015, for the enjoyment that I got from many of her books.

Just before WWI the town of Byron in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney was dominated by the male line of the Hurlingford family and had been so for many generations. Wealth only passed to the male line and with most females in the family living on their own existing in dreary poverty. Missalonghi (Missy) Wright is single, over thirty and lives with her widowed mother and crippled aunt. Her life is boring and meaningless, the only joy being her love of books, especially romantic novels, and her dream of being able to afford to dress in bright colours instead of practical everyday brown.

One day a stranger, John Smith, comes to town and disturbs the Hurlingford males because he has bought a local valley that they didn't know was available (they would have owned it themselves if they had known). John Smith brings hope and change into Missy's life that has an unexpected and huge impact on the Hurlingford's of Byron.

This is a charming, amusing and short novel with an ending spiced with divine intervention that seemed appropriate for the last novel I read from such a superb author. Colleen McCullough was a feisty, independent-minded, internationally acclaimed author of many marvellous books (including the classic Thornbirds saga and her brilliantly researched Masters of Rome series). She will be sadly missed.

This e-book contains promotional first chapters of Colleen's last novel, BITTERSWEET about the four Latimer sisters which I read and enjoyed 16 months ago. In my review I said that the ending left scope for visiting the lives of the sisters later on in their lives. Sadly that is not to be.

21 February 2015

Stuart Macbride: Cold Granite

DS Logan Macrae - back from the dead
This is Stuart Macbride's award winning debut police novel set in Aberdeen, Scotland. It is a corker and a great start to a great series.

DS Logan Macrae is back at work after a year off sick from near-fatal stab wounds to his abdomen from an earlier case. Macrae really doesn't get time to settle back before he is in the middle of a hunt a for a child killer in the very chilly, damp and wet December streets of Aberdeen (dubbed "Granite City" for its stark and grim buildings). Macbride makes it even more forbidding with descriptions of constant buckets of icy rain and chilling winds.

As well as hunting for the killer Macrae is plagued by important leaks to the press that affect his case, especially when the parents of a murdered child are told about his death by the press. He also has to adjust to a station house where most people have changed since he was there last. Those who remain call him "Lazarus" (who was restored to life by Jesus) because of his remarkable recovery.

I really liked the police characters. DI Inch, Logan's temporary boss who is always eating jelly babies and similar sweets; DI Steel, a chain-smoking foul-mouthed lesbian who is as tough as her name; and very efficient but beautiful WPC Jackie Watson (nicknamed "Ball Breaker" for her strength in dealing with difficult male offenders).

The story is a very gritty and clever police procedural set in atmospheric cold and chilly conditions. The characters are superbly described, and the plot is devious. Warning - some descriptions of bodies, especially decomposed ones, could offend sensitive readers.

IMHO there is nothing better in the world of mystery/thrillers than a top UK police procedural. I finished this book with a feeling that I had discovered one of the best and the start of a great new series - I can't wait to read the next one.

Nelson DeMille: The Lion

The Lion stalks its prey
I admit that I am a John Corey fan, firstly because he is a great detective character who does it his way and secondly for the really funny and mostly obnoxious quips that he makes along the way.

Asad Khalil (aka "The Lion"), is a ruthless Libyan terrorist who menaced ex-NYPD cop John Corey and his wife, FBI agent Kate Mayfield, and planned a major US catastrophe in "The Lion's Game".  At the end of that book Khalil told Corey "I just wanted to say good-bye and to remind you that I will be back....I will kill you and kill that whore you are with, if it takes me all of my life.” This time Khalil is back in the US planning to avenge those who killed his entire family in a bombing run over Gaddafi's compound in Libya, and everyone who stopped his plans last time.

Kate and Corey are both with the federal Anti-Terrorist Task Force. To destress they go sky-diving together (Corey reluctantly). This book has a fantastic adrenaline filled description of a sky dive gone wrong - sabotaged by Khalil . The book is worth reading for these scenes alone.

Corey then gets caught up in a chase to find Khalil before he can kill again and carry out another catastrophic attack. The chase is a very personal one with both Khalil and Corey tracking one another, but the Lion seems to have the upper hand most of the time.

I really enjoyed this page-turning and exciting John Corey adventure. Corey still had plenty of obnoxious quips, mainly pretty racial ones about Khalil involving camels and towel-heads, and about Khalil's mothers affair with Gaddafi. IMO they weren't up to the standard of those in previous and later books in the series.

This was a revisit as I had read this book when it was published a few years ago. It didn't disappoint.

12 February 2015

R F Delderfield: Theirs was the Kingdom

Superb Victorian family saga
R F Delderfield has long been one of my favourite novelists of family sagas set in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. The Swann family saga is at the top of my list because it covers the exciting time when England moved from a basically feudal society to a modern industrialised society in a couple of generations. This is the second in the series, which started with GOD IS AN ENGLISHMAN.

The Swann family, headed by Adam Swann, is the start of a rich, prosperous Victorian upper middle class dynasty. Adam, back from the wars at the beginning of Victoria's reign, started a successful transport company "Swann on Wheels" that covers all of the UK providing horse-driven freight transport to and from the railways, factories and ports. The business has its own "family" of loyal staff scattered around the country, many of whom started with nothing and worked their way to success through the backing of astute businessman Adam Swann.

Adam and Henrietta are also starting to grow their own Swann dynasty of 9 children, all with different abilities and character. The challenge to Henrietta is to mold these characteristics to allow her children to make their mark in Victorian society. Adam is frequently too busy or tired to help, but he is mostly an understanding and supportive father when the need arises.

The eldest children are a microcosm of Victorian achievements. Alex joins the Army and is totally unprepared and untrained for the butchery of the Zulu wars which he barely survives. The eldest, Stella, has to be rescued from an unbearable marriage. George is the main hope to take over the business but he is distracted by his absorbing interest in the advent of horseless transport with the development of the internal combustion engine - and Adam doesn't understand the impact that this will have on his business. Giles is undoubtedly the brains and heart of the family but finds it difficult to settle down to the humdrum of business.

In the end they all find great but mostly unexpected partners to take the Swann dynasty into the Edwardian world (and the last book in the saga GIVE US THIS DAY).

Delderfield is a born storyteller who gives us a evocative and fantastic insight into Victorian society, politics, families and business in the second half of the 19th Century. At the same time as revisiting this great saga I have also been reading Malcolm Macdonald's Stevenson family saga again (starting with WORLD FROM ROUGH STONES) which covers the same era in a slightly different way. While Swann is rich, Stevenson is mega-rich and faces up to the traumas of the nouveaux riche in entering Victorian high society. Both series cover the same era in slightly different ways and if you are a Victorian history junkie, like me, you will want to read both series even though each of their books are lengthy tomes.

Paula Hawkins: Girl on the Train

A very slow train 
GIRL ON THE TRAIN has received rave reviews but IMHO is is a very slow train about some strange people.

Rachael takes the same commuter train into London every day and through the quirks of the signalling system most days it slows or stops near a row of houses in the London suburbs. She can see something of the people living in each house in the row from the train and even gives some of them names, Gradually you realise that Rachael is interested because she used to live in one of the houses.

The plot unfurls slowly as we get to know more about Rachael, her drinking problems and the reasons for her fixation on the houses and their occupants. She cannot move on from her past and keeps trying to connect with the people she sees from the train, although some of them don't want to see her.

This is basically a psychological thriller that unfolds page by page to give you a bigger picture of what happened and what is happening. Unfortunately it unfolded too slowly for me to get absorbed in the story and I put it down several times because I couldn't connect with what it was about.

The only thing that I did connect with was the train journey as many years ago I commuted to London on  a train that frequently stopped at a junction between two lines. I remember seeing the back gardens and windows of the nearby houses, but never had a clear view of any of the occupants.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for a copy of this book.

Jonathan Kellerman: Motive

Last suppers
This is another of Jonathan Kellerman's well written police procedurals/criminal psychology series featuring PhD psychologist Dr Alex Delaware who helps LAPD Homicide Lieutenant Milo Sturgis with his most difficult cases.

Milo confronts the murder of Katherine Hennepin, a young woman strangled and stabbed many times in her home. The killer mysteriously leaves an uneaten meal for two at the murder scene. Katherine had a short affair with a chef known for his drunken tempers, but he has a solid alibi.

With no clues Milo moves on  to another case and investigates the murder of Ursula Corey an attractive wealthy divorcée who has been gunned down in the car park of her attorney's office building. The initial suspects are the woman's business partner/ex-husband and her divorce lawyer who just turns out to have been her secret lover. Things get interesting when an untouched meal is found at the home of the victim.

Other victims are also found with untouched "last suppers" laid out at the scene with the quality of the meal matching the background of the victim. Delaware is brought in to give guidance on the psychology of a serial killer who has great manipulative skills and cunning, and possible culinary skills.

This is a high quality police procedural which involves intensive surveillance of possible suspects that provides lots of interesting information about the lives of the suspects but no real breakthrough. All it needs is a single, almost accidental, breakthrough to make the plot sizzle and twist in unexpected ways.

While I enjoyed Kellerman's writing style and plot development which became pretty page-turning as the finale approached it was not as compelling as earlier books in the series. To some extent the ending was a bit anti-climatic, but heart-warming, and you really need to read this book to appreciate it. There is no doubt that this series will remain on my reading list.

04 February 2015

Ian Caldwell: The Fifth Gospel

Religious conspiracy unveiled
This is a well written suspense novel about a murder and conspiracy at the Vatican. If you are not very religious (as I am) you may find some of it a bit difficult to understand and appreciate.

The story is based around the murder of Ugolino Nogara in the grounds of the Vatican summer palace. Ugaro would have shortly been opening a ground-breaking exhibition at the Vatican Museum including an exhibit that clarifies the history of the Turin Shroud. He planned to use the content of the little-known Diatessaron - the "Fifth Gospel" that tries to bring together the divergent content of the four Gospels that describe the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It would also impact on a possible reconciliation between the Roman Catholic church and the various Orthodox Christian churches.

The main characters are brothers, Alex and Simon Andreou. Alex is a Greek Catholic priest who lives inside the Vatican as a single parent with his five-year-old son (surprisingly Greek Catholics can marry before they enter the priesthood). Simon has moved into the main Catholic church and is a priest in the Vatican Secretariat, who seems destined for higher office. Recently in secret he has been courting various Orthodox Bishops. Alex had been teaching Nogara his interpretation of the  4 Gospels and helping with his search in the Diatessaron for clues to the real truth about the history of the Shroud.

When Alex answers a call from Simon to meet him at the Castel Gandolfo, the Pope's summer palace just outside Rome, he finds Nogara dead with a bullet wound in a car with a shattered window. Simon is standing nearby. As the murder occurred on Vatican land the Church decides to investigate and pass judgement on the incident themselves - a very different procedure to normal criminal court procedures.

While this is an interesting suspense tale it is the Vatican setting that makes it fascinating and very different. Caldwell gives us his inside view of the Vatican. It told me a lot about a world of ambitious celibate men whose lives are based around a fundamental belief in the Gospels that some of Christ's Apostles wrote nearly two thousand years ago. Only the most ambitious and dedicated will get to the top and some will stop at nothing to achieve their objectives. The inconclusive tale of the reconciliation of Alex with his estranged wife and his conflicts between his love for religion and the Gospels and his love for his wife left a lot of things unsaid.

The book certainly opened my eyes to another world. I am not sure if Caldwell wrote it to show an understanding of religious life or as a criticism of religious life. You need to read the book yourself to come to your own conclusions. As an agnostic brought up as an Anglican it supports my views on the hypocritical nature of all extreme commitments to religion.

My thanks to Simon & Schuster Australia for a copy of this book for review.

Nora Roberts: The Liar

While Nora Roberts' books are not my normal genre I try to read her annual romantic suspense releases (recently The Witness, The Collector, Whiskey Beach, Chasing Fire) to see how a bestselling author who has written so many books manages to turn out something different. While I have been impressed with her recent romantic suspense releases I was disappointed with this one.

Shelby Foxworth lost her husband, Richard, in a boating accident. Then when she is settling his estate she lost her illusions of the man who provided  a life of luxury for herself and their daughter when she finds herself left with a crippling debt. Her luxury life was a complete fabrication, and Shelby soon finds that he was an adulterer, a liar and a con man.

Staggering from the impact Shelby moves back home to her loving family who she deserted for the high life with Richard. Despite initial problems they welcome her back and she meets Griff Lott, a local building contractor who is totally the opposite of Richard. Of course following the typical Roberts formula, Shelby and Griff are immediately attracted to one another.

In recent books Nora Roberts was able to mix her romantic formula's with interesting suspense and a courageous but flawed young woman. This time IMHO this was a great disappointment. The romantic stuff would hardly make a successful Harlequin/Mills and Boon book, the suspense was weak and unbelievable and Shelby was not a very memorable or powerful heroine. I had worked out most of what was going to happen, both romantically and with the suspense plot when I had read about one fifth of the book.

It seems to me that Nora Roberts has written so many books that she may be getting to her use-by date. Her romantic formulas are tired and repetitive and her suspense plots are becoming unbelievable. I did give it 3 stars but this is because it is not my normal genre and I am sure that there will be many readers who will love anything that Roberts's writes.

I doubt that I will be read the next annual book of this type - but then I have told myself the same thing with Jack Reacher thrillers and always seem to have an excuse to see how another long-standing bestselling author can manage to dish up something different.

My thanks to Net Galley and the Australian publisher for a copy of this book for review.

Malcolm MacDonald: Abigail

Victorian morality tale
This is the fourth and final novel in the classic Stevenson family saga by Malcolm Macdonald. While I loved the previous two books in the series I thought that Macdonald had run out of ideas about the family with this book which is very different to the others.

After SONS OF FORTUNE the three eldest Stevenson children have found their places in life, despite the plans of their rich and powerful parents. Winifred is running her own girl's school and will remain a spinster. John junior ("Boy") has found his niche in the Army fighting on the wild Indian frontier and Caspar ("Steamer") has successfully taken over half of the business, married well and built a huge family home to meet his lifestyle that would leave Downton Abbey in shade. The rift between their parents continues, but there is some hope of reconciliation.

Abigail has always been the difficult, sometimes tempestuous, younger daughter who John and Nora hope will take a more conventional line and marry well. This is not going to happen with a girl with such a indomitable spirit. Having been home tutored Abigail has been closeted from the real world. One day she tricks her maid Annie into telling her the facts of life which opens a new view of the world that starts her on a world of passion and exploration that will be the keynote of her life.

Abbie becomes a talented author, journalist and painter which leads her to the great capitals of Europe. She finds ways to live an independent life for herself away from her wealthy family at a time when single women from the upper classes are rarely ever able to become independent.

Abigail is more of a Victorian morality story than an extension of a family saga as Abbie experiences the vicissitudes of life and love and befriends both women and men of all classes and wealth who would not normally be part of her life. While she suffers a lot of pain as a result of her independence this helps her to build a life to help women everywhere.

I feel that Macdonald didn't really plan to write this story and had to find something different to continue the family saga and the story seemed to run out of steam towards the end. Despite this I enjoyed the book as Macdonald is a talented commentator on Victorian life. If you have read the earlier books you really should complete the series as it uncovers fascinating aspects of Victorian life through the eyes of a wealthy and intelligent woman seeking independence and equality for women everywhere.

03 February 2015

Amy Hatvany: Outside the Lines

Wonderful and moving book
This was a wonderful book about a woman searching for her lost father who has been living on the streets struggling with mental illness and drug addiction.

It was a beautiful and moving book that I would recommend to anyone looking for an intelligent and meaningful book.

Review by MonicaD

01 February 2015

Herman Wouk: War and Remembrance

Best fictional novel about WWII from an American perspective
I revisited this book recently and despite having read it before I was immediately totally absorbed by this history of America's involvement in  WWII from an American perspective seen through the eyes of a fictional American family. This book and its predecessor WINDS OF WAR are IMHO about the best fictional histories of WWII - they are both epics in their own right. Both books took years to write and involved amazing research to ensure their authenticity.

Herman Wouk is a born storyteller who covers the main aspects of America's wartime history through the lives of a single fictional American family who are drawn into the very centre of almost every aspect of the war and the buildup to war, both in Europe and in the Pacific. Captain Victor ("Pug") Henry is an intelligent, ambitious but not exceedingly charismatic, naval officer whose earlier career as Naval Attache in Berlin brings him into close contact with President Roosevelt as well as many of the main players and leaders in the conflict including Hitler, Goering, Churchill and Stalin. His personal ambition is to get command of a battleship, but this happens at the time of Pearl Harbour when his ship is sunk. Despite this he does get a command and makes his mark in the war.

Henry's family is also inextricably entwined with the maelstrom. Byron is a submariner who is married to Natalie, an American Jewish girl who is trapped in Italy trying to get her Jewish uncle back to the US. Warren is an aviator flying torpedo bombers from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Madeleine eventually marries a naval scientist who is posted to  Los Alamos.

While Pug fights in the Pacific War he also gets involved with in Europe and Russia with Lend-Lease, and in making sure that sufficient landing craft are built for the Normandy landings (meeting Eisenhower in the process). Throughout the book he keeps in touch with Pamela Tudsbury, the daughter of famous English broadcaster Alistair Tudsbury. Their friendship develops as his marriage hits the rocks.

This is not a short book but it was so compelling that the 1,400 pages disappeared in record time. I cannot recommend it (and its predecessor) too highly as one of the most remarkable and authentic fictional books about WWII.

Herman Wouk: Winds of War

Compelling tale about the early years of WWII
Once again I have revisited this book and despite having read it before I was immediately totally absorbed by this history of the lead up to WWII from an American perspective through the eyes of an American family. This book and the sequel WAR AND REMEMBRANCE are IMHO about the best fictional histories of WWII - they are both epics in their own right. Both books took years to write and involved amazing research to ensure their authenticity.

Herman Wouk is a born storyteller who tells the leadup to America's entry into the war through the lives of a single fictional American family who are drawn into the very centre of almost every aspect of the war and the buildup to war, both in Europe and in the Pacific. Captain Victor Henry is an intelligent but not exceedingly charismatic, naval officer whose career as Naval Attache in Berlin brings him into close contact with President Roosevelt as well as many of the main players and leaders in the conflict including Hitler, Goering, Churchill and Stalin. He experiences the terrors of war in a British bomber over Germany, and at the front line with the Russians as the Germans approach Moscow. His personal objective is to get command of a battleship, but he only gets there at the time of Pearl Harbour when most battleships have been sunk.

Henry's family is also inextricably entwined with the maelstrom that is building up around them. Byron (who becomes a submariner) falls for and marries Natalie, an American Jewish girl who is trying to get her Jewish uncle out of Italy. Both of them get trapped in the German invasion of Poland and just escape with their lives. Warren is an aviator flying torpedo bombers from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific.

This is not a short book but it was so compelling that the 900 pages disappeared in record time. I cannot recommend it (and its successor) too highly as one of the most remarkable and authentic fictional books about WWII.