Over 550 book reviews with full author links

27 March 2015

John J Davis: Blood Line (Granger Spy Novel Book 1)

Family Business?
John J Davis has chosen a complex plot for his debut (spy?) novel about the Granger family. Ron and Valerie Granger are living a quiet rural life with their brilliant 16 year old daughter Leecy when their peace is abruptly disturbed one night by a home invasion that attempts to kidnap Leecy.

Ron and Valerie are no normal rural couple working in a small family business - both of them have a history, Ron with the CIA and Valerie with Mossad. They have been waiting for the right opportunity to tell Leecy something about their history when everything unravels. Ron overcomes one of the invaders single-handed and Valerie shoots the other invader in the head with professional accuracy.

The family leaves home on the run, after stopping off to get pre-packed "Go" bags for both parents containing weapons, money and false identities.  Their aim it to to find the mastermind before he finds them.

Leecy is soon asking for answers about what her parents did before she was born which she surprisingly finds exciting. When Ron asks for assistance from his former CIA minder things get very complex and dangerous.

I don't know why Davis called this a spy novel as neither parent was a spy - they were assassins. It is a brave plot for an action-packed debut novel but it didn't absorb my attention as much as it should. There will be more books in the series released soon but my jury is still out on whether I will want to find out more about how this family business develops and prospers.

25 March 2015

Bernard Cornwell: Sharpe's Rifles

Sharpe faces up to his gremlins
Bernard Cornwell's long running series about Richard Sharpe, a foot-soldier in India and in the Napoleonic Wars is one of the best historical series around. Sharpe's Rifles is set at the time of the brutal French Invasion of Galicia in Spain in January 1809.

While Richard Sharpe joined the Army to avoid prison he quickly found that he loved a life of a soldier, especially the adrenaline pumping excitement of battle. He has proved himself in battle and gained a stunning battlefield promotion to become an officer. This is not a comfortable situation as other officers look down on him because he is not their class and his troops who won't look up to him because he is not seen to be a proper officer.

Sharpe has moved on to join the  95th Rifles who are posted to Spain. His Company Commander is killed in a skirmish with the French and Sharpe is left in command to get his Company to safety through French lines. This would be hard enough with the respect of his riflemen which is not forthcoming, especially from the dominating and difficult Irishman Harper who the troops look up to instead of Sharpe. The battle of wills between two strong personalities is enthralling and compelling.

Sharpe's Company meet up with Spanish cavalry commanded by aristocrat Major Vivar who means to raise the flag of Spain's patron saint over Santiago de Compostela, now in French hands. Sharpe is faced with a dilemma, to help Viva or to go it alone in dangerous country.

Once again this is a history lesson about the art of war in the early 19th Century which is bloody and brutal. It is also the story of a brave and clever man of common background who has to face up to his gremlins to get the respect of his men.

I found some of the background, especially Sharpe's relationship with women from a genteel background, is a little confusing because the book was written before SHARPE'S TRAFALGAR (which comes before Rifles in the timeline) where Sharpe has a torrid and very emotional relationship with Lady Grace Hale.

Once again this is a great page-turning story which puts you in a front row seat on the battleground and builds up Sharpe's character as he faces up to his gremlins and shows that he is one of the smartest soldiers of his generation. I still have lots of Sharpe's adventures to share and I look forward to reading them from time to time as exciting relief from more contemporary novels.

24 March 2015

Fiona McIntosh: The Last Dance

An intriguing story of family secrets and deception
This is a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing story by talented author Fiona McIntosh time set in 1930's England. Stella, an impoverished but well educated young woman takes a job as a French/Piano governess/tutor to support her much younger brother and sister.

It all starts with a chance meeting with an unusual man at a Piccadilly ballroom who orchestrates a job with the wealthy but strange Ainsworth family at their huge home in Sussex. While Douglas Ainsworth welcomes her, his wife and teenage daughter don't want her help. Slowly Stella learns something about the family secrets and more about the world of the mysterious Douglas.

Things come to a head when Douglas decides to take his whole family and Stella on a cruise calling at North Africa, Egypt and the Holy Land leading to two unexpected endings. MonicaD read and enjoyed her previous book NIGHTINGALE and considers that this one is as good if not better.

Five star by MonicaD and four star by Suncoast.

Thanks to Penguin Australia for an advanced copy of this book for review.

20 March 2015

Herman Wouk: The Hope

A classic view of the early years of Israel
This is a fantastic historical fictional novel about the early troubled years of the State of Israel. Herman Wouk takes us from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War after the UN vote that recommended the partitioning of Israel, through Israeli cooperation with France and Britain and invasion of Egypt during the Suez crisis, to the bloody but overwhelming victory of the Six Day War.

Wouk has a magic touch in being able to seamlessly integrate fictional and real historical characters with both insight and compassion in action-packed environments. David Ben Gurion, Moshe Dyan, Golda Meir and West Point trained US Army colonel "Mickey" Marcus (who was Israel's first military chief of staff during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War), are larger than life.

Fictional characters include Austrian born Zev Barak, an Army officer, later military attaché in Washington; Sam Pasternak, born in Czechoslovakia - a combat officer, later in military intelligence and a renowned womaniser; Benny Luria, born in Moshe Dayan's moshav who becomes an Air force pilot and leads a squadron that destroyed the Egyptian air force within minutes of the start of the Six Day War; and Benny's beautiful sister Yael (who has also been an Army officer), caught between a love of Israel, her family and the magnetic attractions of living the high-life in the US.

The most fascinating fictional character is Polish born Yossi Nitzan, fresh out of the refugee camps of Europe who turns up at the front in the 1948 War as "a lanky bespectacled dust-covered boy of sixteen or so, wearing a rusty British tin hat and mounted bareback on a muddy white mule.". He is immediately nicknamed "Don Kishote" (Quixote in Hebrew) and volunteers for the war - "I'm eighteen. Give me a gun." Kishote eventually becomes a paratroop leader in the Suez war and a Tank Commander in the Six Day War.

This is edge-of-seat adrenaline-packed authentic historical action written by one of the World's best storytellers. Of course Wouk writes from a Jewish perspective backed up by vital knowledge about the various ways the Jewish religion is practiced. It is this comprehensive perspective of Jewish life that helps to explain the painful birth of modern Israel.

I was captivated when I read this book when it was first published in 1993 and was even more captivated when I read it again recently. I plan to revisit the sequel THE GLORY very soon. Both books would have been given six stars if that was permitted.

13 March 2015

Eve Harris: The Marrying of Chani Kaufman

Strange story of strange people
I have seen many TV clips of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in black hats, bushy beards and side ringlets but know very little about the religion, especially the role of women. This book opened my eyes to this strange religion and how they live.

In THE MARRYING OF CRANI KAUFMAN Eve Harris calls on her experiences of teaching in an ultra- Orthodox school to tell the story of 19 year-old Chani who lives in an ultra- Orthodox Jewish community in North West London. She has never had physical contact with a man, and via a matchmaker she is engaged to be married to Baruch Levy. They have never had a date or kissed and both have little knowledge of marital relationships because sex education was not taught at their schools. All Chani has been told by her mother and mentor is that her wedding night will be painful (which increases her anxiety) and that she must submit to her husband.

Eve Harris takes us into the strange, but mainly peaceful life of an ultra-Orthodox community which basically rejects modern secular culture and lives according to their fairly radical interpretation of the Jewish scriptures. To my eyes it is a bit like having a community of Amish people in the suburbs of London. They shun television as "an open sewer in the living room" and on her way home from school Chani often stops and stares into the window of the local TV retailer.

Women seem to be treated as second class citizens. They follow the religion but can only worship at the Synagogue in the females gallery. Married women must cover their hair and can only show it to their family. There is a touching scene where the wife of a Rabbi is miscarrying and his main thought when she is being taken into the ambulance is to make sure that her hair is covered.

All in all I learnt a lot about this strange religion but I can't say that I was absorbed by the book, especially as the main theme of the book fizzled out with an anti-climactic ending. While the book was longlisted for the  2013 Man Booker Prize I really don't think it deserved that honour. It was well written and easy reading but it rambled a lot and I found myself flipping pages to get to the ending, which, as I said, was anti-climatic.

A few weeks ago I reviewed another book with a religious background - THE FIFTH GOSPEL by Ian Caldwell featuring the Vatican and the Catholic Church and commented that I was not sure if Caldwell wrote it to show an understanding of Catholic religious life or as a criticism of Catholic ways. I find myself in the same position with this book - is it meant to educate people about ultra-Orthodox Jewish life or to highlight the problems of following that faith. My reaction is the latter but I may be wrong.

11 March 2015

Lee Goldberg: Watch Me Die

A really funny PI story
Every now and again I find a book that really makes me laugh - and this is one of them. It is dark and twisted, really funny with a quite unexpected ending.

Harvey Mapes (just as good a name as Forrest Gump) is a 26-year-old security guard, a virtual no-hoper who mans the night shift on the gate of an up-market residential estate in LA. The security is superficial as Harvey in unarmed and even his badge is sewn on. Nothing happens on that shift so Harvey reads a lot of second- hand detective stories, watches PI shows on TV and is addicted Spenser, Magnum, and Mannix.

Harvey is overjoyed when one of the residents, Cyril Parkus, asks him to follow his lovely wife Lauren because she is acting strangely. The pay is great and Harvey immediately does his homework by watching a marathon session of "Mannix" to get clues on how to follow someone. Suddenly he feels alive as he has a purpose in life. He shares this with his neighbour Carol, with whom he has a casual sexual relationship. She calls him "Magnum" and is turned on with the thought of Harvey's PI project.

Of course nothing goes as planned and while Harvey makes the most basic mistakes he does find a clue that suggests that Lauren is being blackmailed and Carol helps him to find the name of the blackmailer. Then something terrible happens and Harvey is completely out of his depth - but he plows on and gets into, and out of, even more trouble.

Lee Goldberg has created a lovable and memorable character that you will follow with trepidation, amazement and delight. This is a great little book that pokes fun at the PI genre and gets away with it. Well recommended.

10 March 2015

Belinda Alexandra: Sapphire Skies

An absorbing Russian saga
This was a surprisingly good book about the life story of an ace female Russian fighter pilot in WWII. It is essentially a love story set around times of betrayal, violence and horror.

Natalya Azarova grew up living a privileged life in Stalin's pre-war Russia and despite family tragedies became one of Russia's top fighter pilots who was feared by many German pilots. Her plane was shot down and her reputation destroyed by rumours that she was a German spy. In 2000 the remains of her plane and a sapphire brooch (a present from Stalin) were found buried deep in a forest - but there was no sign of the body. Valentin Orlov, now in his 80's, who was her Squadron Leader and lover, has been hunting for her for many years.

In 2000 Lily Nickam, daughter of a Russian refugee to Australia, is working in Moscow and meets a derelict old woman who pleads with her to take her dog. There follows a touching tale of a relationship between the two women from different generations.

Belinda Alexandra has written well researched historical drama with an extremely complex, sometimes over complex, plot that fairly seamlessly spans modern day Russia and Stalin's Russia covering the horrors of Stalin's purges, the Russian front, Auschwitz and Siberian labour camps. Sometimes it is challenging but there is always a thread of humanity amidst the horrors.

This is the kind of historical drama fiction that lets you learn something about the past while enjoying an interesting and absorbing story. Well recommended.

08 March 2015

Peter Corris: The Dying Trade

Cliff Hardy #1 - a hard boiled detective with a love for Sydney
This is the first book by Peter Corris, published in 1980, about a private detective with a love and understanding of the best and worst parts of Sydney. I have read a couple of the remarkable 40 books in the series but came back to #1 to get a better understanding of Hardy's remarkable character.

Cliff Hardy is ex-army, and an insurance investigator turned private investigator. He ekes out a living on minor, normally low paying, cases and has a love-hate relationship with his time and place. He tends to get drawn into cases involving people he deplores, especially those with wealth and connections. He lives on the edge of Glebe near the greyhound stadium and his description of Glebe is very evocative to me - "Glebe is one of those places where if  you can't see a pub by looking both ways down the street then you must be standing outside one". Hardy is a borderline alcoholic, drives an old Falcon with almost bald tires, a heavy smoker and always seems to have luck in seducing the ladies.

In this first book Hardy is approached by a very rich man. Bryn Gutteridge to investigate threats made to his twin sister Susan who is in a private sanitorium. Soon Hardy gets drawn into the world of a powerful and disjointed family and after an initial frosty introduction is also surprisingly also hired by Bryn's beautiful young and rich widowed stepmother, Ailsa. The plot is action-packed but some parts a bit unbelievable with car bombings, torture, attempted hit and runs, and protection of an escaped prisoner, all interlaced into a tale of a fractured but very wealthy family.

This was a good introduction to the series but the introduction to Cliff Hardy was what made it work for me. So now I have a big job ahead of me to read some or all of the remaining books in this outstanding Australian series.

07 March 2015

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant

Very different literary fiction but not my "cuppa"
Each year I make a resolution to read a few books "outside my wheelhouse" - this is one of them. In the majority of cases I am surprised how well I connect with different types of story but in this case it didn't happen.

The book is set in time in Britain just after the legendary King Arthur and involves an old couple who set out to visit their son in a distant village. The whole environment is shadowed by mist, which seems to dull everyone's memory of past events and their path is strewn with mystical creatures, ogres and dragons (especially the mighty Querig which the last remaining Knight of the Round Table has been chasing for years). They meet Saxons and Britons on the way and a strange boatman who will only take couples to a special island if he sees that their relationship is strong enough.

Basically the book was not my cup of tea, perhaps because I don't like fantasy and the story was far too slow and difficult to comprehend. That doesn't mean that Kazuo Ishiguro is a poor author - his prose is a work of beauty - and others may love it. I still plan to keep looking for another book outside my wheelhouse that will expand my reading world.

My thanks to The Reading Room and the publisher for an advanced copy of this book for review.

Stuart MacBride: Dying Light (Logan McRae, Book 2)

Murders still happen in Aberdeen in Summer
In #1 COLD GRANITE in this great Scottish police series Stuart MacBride introduced us to DS Logan Macrae, That time Aberdeen was in the middle of a freezing and wet Scottish winter but this time MacBride shows us that the short summer there can be wonderful, despite the murder rate continuing to climb.

DS Logan Macrae is facing up to the consequences of a botched raid on a warehouse that went wrong when PC Maitland was shot and is now on life-support. His career is in tatters with Professional Standards breathing down his neck and threatening dismissal if Maitland dies. Macrae is moved under the wing of DI Steel, a chain-smoking, foul-mouthed egotistical lesbian who heads up a squad of policemen that nobody else wants - commonly called "The Screw Up Squad". The only comparatively happy thing happening that is happening in his life is that Macrae and WPC Jackie Watson are now cohabiting reasonably happily.

With Steel he gets involved in tracking down a serial killer of prostitutes who leaves them stripped naked and beaten. He is also pulled in by DI Inch to  help when the city is rocked by an arsonist who deliberately screws all exits shut and then lobs petrol bombs into buildings. As well he gets involved with a group of sadistic thugs from Edinburgh who like to cut off fingers - for starters.

While this is a very good and exciting police procedural (warning - some of scenes of torture are amongst the most vivid and horrifying I have read) MacBride spends a lot of time setting up a range of fascinating characters and fleshing out the workings of the local police, press and local authorities.

In later books you will see a lot more of DI Steel and her course humour which livens up the stressful and frequently boring nature of police work. My favourite quote in this book is her comment about the personally remote local female pathologist (normally referred to as "The Ice Maiden") who is an ex-girlfriend of Macrae's - "You used to shag that? Christ your poor little dick must've got frostbite".

The plot is a number of tangled webs which eventually get connected. All in all this is another good book in the series (probably not as great as #1) by an author at the top of his form. I plan to read the rest of the series over coming weeks.