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Book Reviews


Fingerprints of the Gods by Graham Hancock

There are numerous web sites devoted to Eric Hancock and his research into ancient civilisations.

The basis of this book suggests that an advanced civilisation existed 12,000 years ago but was wiped out by a catastrophic series of events.

The essence is that the Egyptians did not build the great pyramids and there is a considerable amount of mathematical theory in a lengthy book that tends to repeat itself on numerous occasions. There are plenty of theories but little evidence but Hancock does put it forward in a persuasive manner.

Whether any of it is true is another matter although we should know if we ever reach Christmas Eve 2012. That is a day after ancient experts allegedly foresaw the next great catastrophe to hit the planet, after which man will return to savagery.

Death is Now My Neighbour by Colin Dexter

This is the latest in Dexter's Inspector Morse series and over many years the Oxford author has developed Morse's character to such an extent that much of the interest in this book is what happens to the hero rather than the plot and the murders.

It is a riveting read, however, and I must admit I got through it in a day.

The plot starts well and disappoints a little towards the end, but Morse is as irrepressible as always. Dexter has taken the art of the detective novel to new linguistic and academic heights.

Popcorn by Ben Elton

Ben Elton can produce the blackest of black humour and this latest novel is no exception.

The plot is minimal but the observations are as sharp as ever. It recounts what happens when reality mirrors art and an oscar winning director who specialises in gross violence suddenly finds himself a hostage in his own home to two psychotic killers.

Elton hits out at art, film noir, the Media and just about anything else that takes his fancy. At times it is sharp and very acidic, but at others it borders on the stupid. Perhaps for once Elton has tried to be too clever by half.

Out of the Sun by Robert Goddard

For a good read, there are few British authors to match Robert Goddard. His plots can at times verge on the ridiculous and there are more co-incidences in a few pages than most people experience in a lifetime, but that should not detract from the pace and interest he maintains.

There’s a fairly convoluted storyline here surrounding brilliant mathematicians, theories of economic disaster and higher plains, and a hero with a son lying in a coma that he was not aware of. The action moves from Southwold to Denmark to the USA and although the ending is slightly disappointing there are a number of twists and turns. If you are looking for solid characterisation give Goddard a miss. If you just want a good read give him a try.

Tick-Tock by Dean Koontz

My reading habits fall into two categories. Firstly there is the serious side of my nature which loves reading textbooks and serious literature and then there is the pulp side which loves Stephen King and Dean Koontz. On the surface this starts out like just another Koontz horror story but there is tremendous humour injected throughout what is ostensibly a rather silly story of horror rag dolls, a Vietnamese-American, a scatty woman and a dog.

Koontz wrote the book as light relief after his heavier novels. On that level, and that level alone, it works..

Strange Highways by Dean Koontz

A collection of short stories that ranges from horror to the macabre but also includes a number of thought-provoking gems. It really is a mish-mash with the title track just short of a full length novel and with enough twists and turns to keep Koontz fans happy. In other places the stories work but I had to have a break in reading this as it became largely monotonous after a time. Having said that Twilight of the Dawn is one of the most stunning and emotionally high powered short stories I have ever read. Here Koontz turns his attentions to real life. It is sad and poignant and lingers long into the memory. A wonderful piece, it is not difficult see why the author names it as his favourite in this collection.

The Daughters of Cain by Colin Dexter

The strength of Colin Dexter's Morse novels is not so much the plot or storyline as his characterisation and evocation of the Oxford area.

Again I became more interested in the character of Morse than the actual crimes. A tangled tale of double murder, the mysterious theft of an antique knife and inter-twined characters. I love Dexter's writing to bits because of his ability to write in a learned but accessible way.

If you want to read more about Dexter and the Morse novels try the following sites.

American Psycho by Brett Easton Ellis

This is certainly one of the most unsettling books I have ever read. Basically it delves into the mind of an American serial killer with graphic descriptions of the unmentionable things he does to his victims both sexually and violently. This book has been voted in the top 20 of the greatest novels of the 20th Century and it certainly has a deep effect.

It certainly isn't a book to enjoy, but whether it is sick and perverted or a deep psychological look into the nihilism of America is a matter of opinion.

It is certainly the antidote to the Great American novel. Ellis at one moment is dealing with the mundane before going off into more gruesome description. It certainly leaves a nasty taste but I was unable to put the book down and I guess I will still be digesting its impact years down the line.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is truly one of the great living novelists. Having read most of the Booker Prize winners from the last 10 years I cannot understand how this marvellous book was just shortlisted for the prize. It should have walked the competition.

Its success lies in Atwood's ability to work on so many different levels. There is psychological drama and human frailty all wrapped up in the story of Grace Marks, sentenced to life imprisonment in Canada in the 19th century for taking part in the killing of her employer and his lover. The essence of the tale is whether Grace was a willing accomplice of a fellow servant or was co-erced into helping him.

We never do quite work out how far Grace was involved in the murder. The story, based on a real incident, twists and turns on virtually every page. It is a heart-warming tale and a thoroughly readable book which I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Regeneration by Pat Barker

The first book in a trilogy which takes the futility of war as its theme and which culminates in the Booker Prize winning "The Ghost Road".

This is a thoughtful if rather loose look at the psychological factors of the first world war, based around a number of characters who float in and out of a sanatorium under the watchful eyes of Dr Rivers.

We are introduced to a real hotch potch of characters, with a variety of neurosis and, if the book does have a fault, it is never being able to feature on any specific character although Billy Prior does go on to be a central figure in the second book "The Eye In the Door"

Themes of sex and homosexuality run though the trilogy along with the struggle of Rivers to come to terms with his own frailties expressed through his inter-reaction with the patients who include the poets Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. It's one of those books that make you go on thinking long after you have finished.

There are many subtleties and nuances to discover and there is power there although I feel that the characters never really develop sufficiently to maintain the reader's interest throughout.

The Eye In The Door by Pat Barker

The second book fixes on the life of Billy Prior as its central theme. It features disillusionment, mistrust, betrayal and the power of sex.

Alongside Prior's own struggle continues that of Rivers and a variety of other characters who take more of a back seat. The title is the symbol of imprisonment, the incarceration of the mind and soul and throughout is the basic strand of the futility of war.

Fiona's Story: A Tragedy of Our Times by Irene Ivison

This is a powerful and disturbing book which chronicles the life and murder of Fiona Ivison, a teenage Yorkshire girl.

It looks at Fiona's life through the eyes of her mother Irene.

Fiona was a lively strong-willed teenager who spiralled into a culture of drugs and prostitution before being found dead in a Doncaster car park.

As well as a chronicle of a life cut so tragically short, the book acts as a social comment on British life in the late 20th century. Irene firmly believes that young prostitutes are victims of a society that cares too little.

It is a very readable, very poignant and very sad book which illustrates the need for our society to learn from its mistakes. I cannot imagine anybody reading this book and not being moved.

Murther and Walking Spirits by Robertson Davies

This is the first of Davies' books that I have read and I enjoyed it without ever being totally convinced.

The opening and closing sections are very original and promise us an enjoyable novel. Unfortunately the bulk of the book verges on the tedious at times although there is considerable humour in the writing.

The book opens with the murder of a well respected newspaper arts critic at the hands of his wife's lover. The murdered man's spirit breaks free and latches itself onto the murderer who is also a critic.

The spirit sits by the side of the murderer as he watches a special film festival of historic footage. But the spirit is shown a very different film festival - the epic story of his ancestors. His screen is filled with the panoramic journey from the America of the War of Independence to the rawness of developing Canada and even to Wales.

At the end of the book we return to the opening plot and follow it through. There is a wickedly funny scene where the spirit tries to contact his former wife through a medium who obviously cannot hear him but pretends that she is in contact.

It is one of those books that I found initially difficult and which I would like to return to at sometime in the future.

Archangel by Robert Harris

The further I delved into this book the more implausible the plot became. Towards the end it became quite silly as the novel dragged to a conclusion that seemed inevitable.

After the first 100 pages I found it beginning to become almost pointless. There were few surprises and the twists of plot became rather dull and obvious.

The best part of the book was a good evocation of Russian politics and landscape. As a story it was sadly mundane and not the kind of novel you would expect from a top selling author such as Harris. The basic plot surrounds the discovery of a long forgotten son of Stalin who is living deep in the forest area of Archangel. The secret is one that Stalin took to his grave, but which is uncovered by an academic and a journalist. The atmosphere is good, the action confusing.

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

McEwan is one of this country's most original authors and it came as no surprise when this book took the Booker Prize. I have a haunting suspicion that it was partly a sympathy vote because of the failure of Endearing Love to win the Booker. Certainly of the two I found Endearing Love the more satisfying.

That isn't to say that Amsterdam is not a sharply drawn vignette. It is a short novel, full of asides and meaning. It gives an incite into the sad decline of our society with its attack on the Media, Morals, Politics and the art of the dilemma. The end is slightly disappointing, but the characters are sharply observed. Cant and hypocrisy live on.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

This is simply the most enjoyable book I have read for some considerable time. I was disappointed when I came to the end. Berendt has hit upon a marvellous mix of journalism and drama and the whole thing reads like a novel.

Berendt focuses on the southern American city of Savannah, Georgia, where characters abound and where the local snub their nose at the rest of the USA.

Savannah is welcoming but introverted. It keeps itself to itself, bucking trends and only asking to be taken at face value.

Inspite of, or maybe because of this, Savannah breeds marvellous characters. Zany characters run throughout this book. They all seem to be too good to be true - but we are assured that they all exist.

Central to the story, however, is the real life murder trial (or to be more accurately trials) of one of Savannah's best known and richest individuals. The story of Jim Williams and the alleged murder of his 21-year-old lover is a story that unfolds in true detective style. The power of the book is that you are never sure whether Williams is telling the truth or not and whether he is guilty or innocent.

This book is a wonderful evocation of a town solid and rigid in its identity. At the same time it seems to stand as a microcosm of the whole American condition. I can highly recommend it.

The Fourth Estate by Jeffrey Archer

Fact as fiction or fiction as fact. You can never be sure in this novel from bestselling Lord Archer.

The fourth estate is obviously the Press and it is the story of the power struggle between Press barons Keith Townsend and Richard Armstrong (thinly disguised pseudonyms for Rupert Murdoch and Robert Maxwell).

The hatred for each other threatens to destroy both. It is a study of the evil of greed and power.

The novel flits from one to the other, building up a picture of them from their birth until their lives become intertwined - with disastrous consequences for one of them.

And there's no surprises over which one walks off his yacht into the sea and drowns.

Archer can certainly weave a good yarn. At times the dialogue is trite and the story would become rather silly if you didn't know that so much of it is based on fact. Possibly the insight into the way the two rose to power from such different backgrounds ii the strongest part of the novel.

The Runaway Jury by John Grisham

I find Grisham's style at times a little too obtuse, a little too American slang. Having said that, this was a good read although perhaps longer than it needs be.

There are some subtle nuances surrounding the behaviour of a jury during a civil claim against a major tobacco company.

Strange goings on accompany the jury designed to decide on a massive claim that the company are responsible for death by cancer caused by smoking.

Perhaps the plot is not all that original and maybe the way the jury is manipulated might be a little hard to swallow, but Grisham is an interesting writer and I found this one of his more enjoyable novels.

Armadillo by William Boyd

Here's a book I had no intention of enjoying. It didn't seem to be going anywhere. By the end I was sorry it had finished. I had been drawn into the tsrange world of the characters and enjoyed the experience.

Boyd has a good command of black humour and uses it to the full in the world of business wheeler-dealering and the slightly dubious sub continent of the underworld as seen through the eyes of the central character.

It's a sharply constructed book which was a delight to read.

Silent Witness by Richard North Patterson

Quite simply the most enjoyable book I have read for years. Patterson is yet another American lawyer turned novelist but this is certainly more dramatic than anything written by John Grisham or Scott Turow.

It is a stunning evocation of friendship, betrayal, youth, middle age all within the central court case.

There is just so much to recommend this book. A successful San Francisco lawyer returns to the town of his birth to defend a friend. There he has to confront the tragic events of his teenage years and come face to face with a past he had cast off.

The book revolves around the parallel lives of the lawyer and his friend Sam Robb. Gradually he is forced to confront the horrors of the past in the present and I can assure you the book has a wicked twist which I never saw coming. This is a classic of its genre.

Air Frame by Michael Crichton

I have enjoyed some of Crichton's work, notably Disclosure. But this was simply one book too many.

It couldn't quite make up its mind whether to be a disaster novel, or a psychological drama or an adventure story and somehow it dropped somewhere between all three with themes never followed through or expanded.

The plot surrounds an air fatality with the central theme an investigation into why the aircraft hit trouble. Interwoven in this is big business and the world of the press, but overall I found it extremely unsatisfying and too complex to be effective.

Paul Temple and the Front Page Men by Francis Durbridge

This was like finding an old friend. A re-issue of one of Durbridge's early novels.

It may be rather old fashioned, but Durbridge was a master mystery writer well ahead of his time. Like all Durbridge novels this one twists and turns on virtually every page. Durbridge's greatness was in the fact that his characters are never what they seem and just when you think you have worked out who the baddy is he turns out to be a cop.

The simplicity of the writing masks a complex plot that has you guessing to the end. Wonderful atmospheric stuff that takes me back to the adaptations of the writers work that I enjoyed on television so many years ago.