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Case Histories: A Novel

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A crime novel with all the ingredients of a great crime novel made unique by the fact that it seems to disregard the crime elements as soon as they are introduced. A wonderful book that looks at the effects and consequences of crime in the lives of normal, everyday and - something Kate Atkinson does with such ease - real people.The book opens with three short chapters introducing us to 3 families each ending with a crime; abduction, murder and mystery. Fast forward through time and we are introduced to Jackson Brodie (a real copper's name!), a cynical, tough, ex-policeman with an estranged wife and child eeking out a living as a private investigator and, when we first meet him, chain smoking and disillusioned. I told you Kate had condensed all the familiar elements of the crime genre. I get the impression this is Kate Atkinson's nod to the crime genre, an inside joke with herself at the reader's expense, as the book goes on Jackson becomes less 'generic' and more real. All of her characters become real people, the book divides between the past and the present and between members from the three families at the start, all connected through Jackson. One of the more memorable lines from the book is Jackson's view of his job, he looks at it as if there are two columns, lost and found, and everyone in the book has lost something or someone. Theo Wyre has lost a daughter and wants to know why, he asks Jackson to find her murderer. Julia and Amelia two sisters have recently lost their father, they find a toy their abducted younger sister used to play with and ask Jackson to try and find out what happened to her. The mysterious blonde hiding a secret (again a cliche of the hardboiled detectives and their femme fatales) asks Jackson to find a long lost relative. Jackson himself we discover has also lost in his past.But where Kate Atkinson really excels is in not letting all of this darken the mood of the story, it does not become overly gritty nor depressingly 'real' as other crime novels may have tempted to. Her characters are so delightfully written full of human quirks that, although the reader sympathises with them, winces as they suffer, we never give in and neither do they, there is an optimism throughout the book that somehow by the end everything will turn out all right after all. This is not to say that this is not an emotional book, children have been killed and sisters have gone missing and Kate Atkinson writes truthfully about the pain for the parents and family left behind but by the end they and the reader have “closure” as they say in the book. At the end Atkinson even manages to pull out the ‘twist in the tale’ from her bag of ‘crime ingredients’ and it manages to try and balance out some of the evil at the start in the three opening Case Histories.
Wild Space: Star Wars: The Clone Wars

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This was my first 'Star Wars' novel, I'm a fan of the films but had always shied away from the books before. However, I was in my local library, saw it and the cover spoke out to me of action, adventure and battles in a distant galaxy far far away .....The story continues on from the Clone Wars animated series (which I have not seen) so I was not perhaps familiar with all the events leading directly up to this book but that is not important, all your favourite characters from the films are here and we get to see inside their head to understand their motives and desires a little bit more than we do in the films, we learn a little bit more about their histories. It deals mainly with Obi-Wan Kenobi, he is a victim of a terrorist attack on Coruscant, the planet where the Jedi headquarters is based which shows how far the Separatists influence is spreading. In a desperate attempt to find out more about the attacks and who perpetrated them he follows clues to an obscure planet in the Outer Rim, to the edge of charted space, where the secret he discovers nearly kills him.I enjoyed the book and although it is part of a massive universe of novels, films and TV shows I never felt I was missing important information needed to understand the plot. It is well written and the story is not just an endless succession of battles with lightsabers and laser guns, there is a secret there that you have to find out once you get into the book. Having said that it is not a sci-fi book that you could pick up and read without knowing at least some of the back story of the Star Wars universe. Is it a book worth watching six films you've so far managed - somehow - to avoid to read? No. Is it worth reading if you have watched the 6 Star Wars films? Yes.
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

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Magic is back ... and what a magical book it returns in. This was by far my favourite book of 2004, I have enjoyed reading it so much that I have even bought the (unabridged) audio book so that I can have someone else read it to me too! It has been a much talked about and publicised book, I doubt I could add anything else to try and persuade you that; "yes - it is a good idea for you to beg, borrow, buy (not steal) this book and read it" except to say that all the hype is true.The book opens in 1806 in an alternate history to ours where magic was once very much part of the daily life. Now however it is very much theoretical with practising magicians having seemingly disappeared. One man though is determined to bring back practical magic, though he is not anxious for anyone else to know of his magic or how it is performed and finds, buys up and hoards all the books on the subject he can. He is Mr Norrell. Society is now awakened once again to the joys of magic with Mr Norrell helping the English defeat Napoleon (and bringing back to life a young rich lady engaged to a cabinet minister). On the wave of this new found enthusiasm for magic comes Jonathan Strange, seemingly the more 'natural' magician, he cannot find books to study from (because of course Mr Norrell is coveting them) but instead teaches himself and suddenly London has two practising magicians and the country becomes divided between the 'Norrellites' and 'Strangites'. In the background behind all these events and on the edge of every single page like a shadow is the Raven King, the last Magical King of the North. That, as a synopsis, is merely scratching the surface though. Combining a 19th century writing style with history, alternate history, fantasy, magic, comedy of manners, the gothic tale and a very tongue in cheek, dry wit; (and, also at over 750 pages long or 30 CD discs for the audio book) there is a lot of depth to this book that no one single review could hope to capture. And even if it was tried don't forget to mention the footnotes, over 200 of them, throughout the book adding bits to the narrative, outlining the backstory and breathing life into an entire imagined catalogue of magical books and tales any one of which could have made a convincing story on their own.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective

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An utterly absorbing book using the very famous (at the time) crime at Road Hill House in 1860 as the backdrop of a fascinating study of the development of detective fiction. Winner of the BBC 4 Samuel Johnson Prize when it came out in 2008, the book starts with a very detailed description of the murder of a small child at his house. This itself promises to be an interesting enough idea with all the characters laid out and vividly brought to life with detailed descriptions / layouts of the house and how everything was found to allow us to play detective alongside the police at the time. However I soon found the minute detail and repetition of the scant clues from the initial investigation to the aftermath of how it affected the family to become quite tedious. Though it is extremely well researched (every aspect of every character and every action they took during the time of the trial is there for us to see) and Kate manages to make us feel the tension of the crime and how it affected Victorian England.And this is where the book really comes alive, in its description of how the murder affected the society at the time, the newspaper reports, contemporary letters written by the public and sent in to editorials and, much more interestingly, how it influenced writers of the time. Kate points out all along her detailed analysis of the crime how it affected detective fiction, how the emerging police at the time were portrayed, how one of the greatest detectives of the time (Mr Whicher, hence the title the Suspicions of Mr Whicher) influenced even the stories we read today and how writers present the evidence to us.As the trial and public hue and cry continue we can see how the public’s reaction to the crime and the perceived unforgiveable invasion of privacy by the police to this middle class family develop to alter detective fiction and also the language used by detectives. This is a great book for any detective fan as we can see echoes of this crime even nowadays in the books we read, read it and be enlightened. I fully intend to go back through the book making a note of the stories she mentions and to try and read them in chronological order.
Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead: Descent

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A welcome return to the classic moan, groan and slow zombies dragging their sorry putrefied half-rotten corpses around the land looking for food ... and that means YOU folks! This is a long on-going series of comics / graphic novels (call them what you like) and it shows, the pace is very slow concentrating more on getting to know the characters than the actual zombies themselves, not that this is a bad thing don't get me wrong; I imagine there are a lot of people who greatly enjoy this and don't want it to end (let's face it, a lot of times a film finishes and you sit there wondering; "but what happens next?", well Kirkman here shows us the full journey with all it's dillemas for the survivors) but for me it brought nothing new to the zombie genre. It starts much the same as the film 28 Days Later with our hero coming out of a coma to find the world dramatically changed and then follows his journey across America as he tries to find his family. Once he finds his family again they are part of a small band of survivors trying to live through the horror and discussing, in depth, their sorrows and woes, dealing with the burdens of losing every single person they ever knew but finding comfort the next minute in the arms of someone else.I'm not sure how many volumes of The Walking Dead there are now, I have read two, I'm not in any hurry to read the next ones but that shouldn't be taken to be as damning as it sounds, I did enjoy the story I just had the feeling I'd read it somewhere before. The artwork, for me, was the same as well. It was competent rather than outstanding; none of the images will stay with me but I did like the fact that they were drawn in black and white which does make a change from the current trend to garishly colour every frame in a graphic novel.I’d recommend it to fans of horror stories, of people who enjoy reading horror comics but for me it wasn’t a defining moment in either genre.3 stars
The Pillars of the Earth

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A historical novel set during the time of civil war in England in the mid 12th century (known as The Anarchy) between the time of the sinking of the White Ship (to all non-historical scholars out there, myself included, the ship and its importance is explained in the book) and the murder of Thomas Beckett. It follows the building of a mighty Cathedral in the fictional town of Knightsbridge, a sort of representation of a typical market town at this time, and the lives of all the people involved and affected by the building. It was also (something I did not find out until after I had finished the book) listed at no. 33 on the BBC's Big Read, a 2003 survey with the goal of finding the "nation's best-loved book".At this stage of a typical review I would normally give a very brief synopsis without trying to give any of the twists and turns away, mainly to help me remember the story when I come back in a years time and think; “this sounds like a good book, why haven’t I read this before?”. However in this case the story is so expansive that I could either condense it to the unhelpful – ‘people build cathedral’ or elucidate to over 4 pages of the general plot. Somewhere in between those two points I can say that the book opens with Tom Builder and his family looking for work and eventually finding it designing and helping to build the Cathedral in Knightsbridge. We follow Tom, his family, children and grandchildren as the cathedral grows but we also see the development of the town itself, how its economy grows, the political reasons behind this, the fight for power not only for the throne of England but also for the Earldom of Shiring and to be the Prior of the Kingsbridge monastery. The tale takes us through medieval England and Europe as we see the growth of cathedral design in France and also in Spain and takes in some of the various important historical events of the time to give a broad sweeping picture of life in medieval England through the rise and fall of various families … a sort of soap opera meets your vague recollections of history lessons at school. One of the drawbacks of having so many characters is they do tend to be very black and white with almost pantomime villains and saintly heroes. However it is the story that draws you in and I have already started looking for more factual based accounts of that period as it sounds a fascinating point in English history. For me there were perhaps too many unsavoury moments in the book to recommend it to anyone, there were an awful lot of sadistic scenes of sex that some readers might find offensive and, especially towards the end, I found there were a lot of unnecessary problems for the characters put in by Follett, obstacles for them to overcome that became a bit too repetitious, you started thinking; “well, what’s going to happen to so and so this chapter?”. I am sure life was a lot harder in the 12th century but these people had seemingly endless Herculean labours to overcome that simply beggared belief. If you enjoy historical novels then I am sure you will enjoy this book and although it will draw you in and compel you to keep going, keep turning the page, just one more chapter please remember you will feel as wrung out as the inhabitants in Kingsbridge by some of the scenes.
Addition: A Novel

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A wonderful debut novel from Toni Jordan about Grace Vandenburg, a 35 year old lady finding love while also suffering from OCD. From an early age Grace has ‘counted’, she counts everything; the bristles on her toothbrush, the distance between her house and school or the local café, the number of items she has to buy from the supermarket and how she eats. Her daily life is determined by the routine her counting has imposed on her and into this comes Seamus, someone she falls in love with. But who or what will win out in the end? Seamus or her Counting? A light romantic comedy, told from Grace’s point of view, the characters are very believable as we find out what first started her counting and her attempt to try and stop with Seamus’ help. There are some wonderful touches in this book including Grace’s obsession with Nikola Tesla an inventor from the turn of the century and her relationship with her family and nieces. The pace to the book is very quick and interspersed with some funny observations from Grace herself about her situation that stops the story from being melancholy about a very serious illness that has cost her her job and past relationships.Ultimately a funny insight into what is obviously a very serious subject told in a believable fashion, I would recommend this book to fans of romantic comedies.
Company

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A wonderfully over the top satire at the expense of any and all corporations. Set in the fictional corporate world of Zephyr Holdings; all of the small minded, seemingly petty politics in the office are pointed at, exposed and ridiculed. A must for any office worker who feels that their boss is not entirely sure of the real world around them!Jones is starting his first new day at Zephyr a company where no-one knows exactly what they are doing, why they are doing it or indeed how it is going to get done. Desperate to know more Jones starts to dig around, ask questions he shouldn’t and talk to people (notably senior management) thought to be un-reachable. Without wishing to give too much more of the story away for fear of giving clues to the twist in the story suffice to say that nothing in this office is quite as it appears to be.This book reminds me of Joseph Heller and I think the best description for it is Catch 22 in an office. Having said that it doesn’t quite match the continued satire and humour of Heller’s anti-war masterpiece, the twist to the novel occurs very early on and I think that it would have been better had Barry explored the office a little bit more before revealing what is really going on. The rumours that run around the Zephyr office started by the employees (typical, I think, of any business) could have had the readers’ imagination going off in several directions trying to work out the plot. Having said that it is the characters and the ridiculous and often surreal situations that the management put the staff in to that really drives the novel. Every aspect of the office from the mundane filing and photocopying to the rather less mundane fear of being downsized and fired is explored by Barry and no-one clocks out at 5pm to go home without having been made to feel a little bit foolish first.
Juliet, Naked

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I have to be honest, I have actively resisted reading any Nick Hornby books in the past. For whatever reason, right or wrong, I didn’t think they’d be ‘for me’. Whether it was the films, the subject matter (I think I always thought they were ‘romantic’ books, about couples meeting in odd circumstances – at football grounds, in music stores or because of a child who didn’t fit in at school) or the fact that he’s a gunners fan (just kidding) I just put him firmly in the ‘not for me’ category. All this changed a couple of months ago when we read About a Boy in our book club … after some of the rather dire thrillers they’ve put us through I thought it would be churlish not to try it. Got it, read it, loved it. It is still about relationships but it is definitely ‘for me’, his writing is funny and insightful full of little touches, characteristics and thoughts that immediately made me think of people I knew and could identify with. The story went from one seemingly improbable situation to another quite realistically and immediately hooked me, I couldn’t put it down.So when another book club I’m in also suggested a Nick Hornby book (Juliet Naked) I was really looking forward to it and I wasn’t disappointed. There’s the same humour (note the email conversations and online chat forum excerpts that end each chapter, he manages to exactly capture the funnier aspects and crazed dynamics of the message boards with several strangers trying to argue that their opinion is the better one, that they know more about an obscure singer-songwriter than the next person and then the non-fan coming in and rubbishing their views claiming that the singer he prefers is far superior …) and the same depth to the characters that make you believe in them. The title refers to a new, stripped down, acoustic album of demo versions of songs by a singer-songwriter (Tucker Crowe) from his most famous album called “Juliet” that has recently been released. It’s the first new material from Tucker in about 20 years and no-one has seen or heard from him in all this time; Duncan, the founder of the Tucker Crowe fanclub website (his fans, mainly middle aged men, like to refer to themselves as Crowologists), is the first to receive it and rushes to be the first to write a (very) enthusiastic review of it while his long suffering partner Annie who has had to put up with Duncan’s obsession for all things Tucker (when Annie observes that she has long accepted the Crowe thing as "part of the package, like a disability", you know all you need to know about life with Duncan) disagrees and also puts up a review of the album expressing her differing view of it. This then leads to Tucker (reclusive for two decades) contacting Annie to agree with her disparaging views (stick with me here … unlikely I know but at no point do you ever put down the book thinking; “yeah … as if!!”). A friendship then develops between Annie and Tucker over emails and at this time we are introduced to Tucker (nothing at all like the picture Duncan has portrayed, no doubt this is what Nick Hornby had in mind, showing us that our idols are not as we think of them but just as real and with the same problems as ourselves) and his extended family of famous ex-models, ex-wives and step-children and the truth behind the myth that has developed surrounding Tucker from Duncan and the other Crowologists. This is very well done and we can see exactly how the larger-than-life legends have developed, what Tucker thinks of them (and also of the people claiming that these are facts!) and the truth behind them. In fact at this point I can do no better than steal a sentence from another review which perfectly captures the book; “ The book’s likably bleak humour lies mostly in Hornby's pitch-perfect examination of male fandom … and the way in which the web has enabled fans to stalk and even, somehow, take possession of their idols from the safety of darkened bedrooms.” When Tucker inevitably comes across to England to visit Annie after Duncan leaves her following an affair at work there seems no way of proving to Duncan that this is in fact Tucker Crowe the person he has idolised all his life because as they say he knows more about Tucker than Tucker himself! By the end of the book what happens to the characters is left beautifully unclear, we are not let down with a sickly sweet soppy ending where Annie and Tucker go off into the sunset hand in hand and Duncan is happier and far more content for having met his idol but instead we are left with the possibilities of this happening. Annie discusses at the end with her therapist (a sort of physical voice-in-her-head character used to show us what she is thinking and feeling) all the options available to her - staying in Goolness (a fictional and dismal north eastern seaside town well past its heyday) or going to America to start a new life, possibly with Tucker or possibly without. Because of the events in the books everyone seems to have come out better and stronger with both Duncan and Annie happier (the former in his own way and the latter with seemingly impossible-to-conceive-before avenues open to her now, for example the idea of moving out of Goolness) and Tucker as well has been touched and come to terms with his semi-celebrity status and fans and releases a new album of new material which is discussed on Nick Hornby’s fictional online chat forum at the end in one of the books funnier moments … I’ll not spoil it for you but I do hope you read this yourself to find out … highly recommended.
The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Collins Classics)

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The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes read by Robert Hardy is an audio book containing only 4 of the 12 stories in the collection of the same name. I have the stories but I have also bought a few of these condensed audio book collections simply because I think Robert Hardy is marvellous at bringing Sherlock Holmes to life. I have a collection of Sherlock Holmes stories on audio (Legends of Radio: The Ultimate Sherlock Holems Collection - not written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) from America in the 1940's and '50's narrated by such acting luminaries as Orson Welles, Basil Rathbone and Sir John Gielgud but they don't come close to Robert Hardy. If you get a chance to listen to him reading the Sherlock Holmes stories then grab it I say!The first story in the audio book collection is; The Adventures of The Sussex Vampires. Holmes receives a letter from Robert Ferguson who is convinced that his Peruvian wife is sucking the blood of their child like a vampire as the boy has bite marks in his neck and is ill. This lady is Mr Ferguson's second wife and it transpires that she is not to blame but her stepson Jack is to blame who is jealous of the his step-brother.The second story is; The Adventure of the Three Garridebs, a lovely mystery for Holmes with a gentleman, Mr Nathan Garrideb (who is a recluse and never leaves his flat), being spun a web of lies about an inheritance being given to an American, Mr John Garrideb, on the proviso that he finds two other gentlemen with his unusual surname. The american Garrideb insists that Nathan accompanies him to Birmingham where he has found a third Garrideb so he can claim his inheritance. Of course all is not as it seems and it is up to Holmes to untangle the lies and discover why the American wants Nathan out of his house.The third story is; The Adventure of the Three Gables opens with some beautifully comic accents from Robert Hardy as Steve Dixie, an ex-boxer, threatens Holmes to stay away from Harrow (where Holmes has just received a letter from a lady in distress requiring his services). Mrs Maberley of Harrow has been offered a sum of money for her house more than it is worth but only if she will sell her house and all of the contents of it, which of course makes her suspicious and her suspicions are compounded by people spying one her. After a robbery at her house after she refuses to sell Holmes works out that they were after a manuscript written by her recently deceased son of a lurid affair between himself and a wealthy woman, Isadora Klein, who did not want the story to come out. After trying to obtain the manuscript legally (by buying the house and contents, the manuscript being in the house) she resorts to stealing it and burning the manuscript. Holmes, not above breaking the law himself at times in his career, blackmails Isadora into paying for a round the world trip for Mrs Maberley (something she had always wanted to do) as compensation for the robbery.The last story in this audio collection is; The Adventure of the Lion's Mane more famous perhaps for being narrated by Holmes himself and not Dr Watson. Now retired Holmes is enjoying the quiet life and seclusion of Sussex when the local science teacher is killed in mysterious circumstances. In asking about the teacher, Fitzroy McPherson, it seems there are a number of people with reason to hate and possibly kill him. The real murder though is a Lion's Mane Jellyfish, a deadly creature that was in the bathing pool McPherson used on the coast. One possible reason that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had Holmes narrate the story and not Dr Watson is that it hinges on matters of medicine. Presumably had Watson seen the red welts on McPherson's back caused by the jellyfish he might have been able to deduce himself what had happened.These stories are not perhaps as imaginative or well written as Doyle's earlier Holmes stories but there is still plenty of fun as Holmes explains his "elementary deductions" to Watson and if you do get a chance to hear them read by Robert Hardy I would recommend it.
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