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Tuesday, 5 July 2022

BAD COMPANY - Book review

 This is Jack Higgins’s eleventh Sean Dillon thriller published in 2003 and overall it is, sadly, a bad book.

I have read very few Dillon novels so found the rehashing of earlier escapades helpful, notably his involvement with the Rashid family, but really for any fans it must have felt dire to have it all regurgitated again as filler. The most interesting aspect for me was the background to von Berger’s wartime German past, because Higgins did his wartime descriptions very well. 

The idea of a secreted diary dictated by Hitler which reveals negotiations between the US President and the dictator was essentially a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. Len Deighton did something similar with a secret meeting between Churchill and Hitler in 1981 (XPD).

Even the action is fleeting without giving any sense of 'being there'.

Disappointing. For Sean Dillon completists.

Monday, 4 July 2022

GARDENS OF EARTH - Book review


Book One of The Sundering Chronicles by Mark Iles (2021) is an excellent speculative fiction novel. It begins as if it’s sci-fi but evolves into a cross-genre conflation of fantasy, sci-fi and horror. Most definitely horror.

It begins on the ill-fated planet of Halloween where space troopers are combating the planet’s inhabitants. Steff Philips is with his members of the flight wing enjoying a meal when it all goes wrong, horribly wrong. Steff retreats to his room – but he isn’t safe there. ‘A rotting hand, with ribbons of flesh hanging from exposed bone, reached up from underneath his bed and snatched at his ankle.” The stuff of nightmares. 

However, Steff isn’t the hero of this novel. That’s Seethan Bodell, a space fleet commander. When he’s not on duty and working overtime at the base, he lives in the boarding house of Mrs Maskill, a lady who has become his adoptive mother. Seethan is coping well even though he occasionally suffers from PTSD brought on by previous conflicts where he has lost men. Guilt is never far from the surface. But he employs his coping strategies to defeat the darkness.

Because the humans felt forced to retaliate with devastating effect, Halloween became a wasteland and the indigenous inhabitants – nicknamed the Spooks – escaped to form a massive fleet capable of attacking Earth in dreadful reprisal. And they seem unbeatable. Onboard one of the Earth space carriers is Admiral Woodward – a nod by Iles to Sandy Woodward who was the British task force commander in the Falklands War. 

Yet there is one slim chance for humanity. Seethan is tasked with embarking on the mission that would alter history and even right the wrongs of the past in one fell swoop. He is accompanied by the fetching android Rose who was built in Bradbury City on Mars. ‘Her hair’s like spun gold, and her skin’s… well, porcelain. She has these wonderful deep-green eyes, ones you could drown in…’ (p95) Androids are not particularly liked by many humans; people feel threatened, despite the Asimov Laws of Robotics. Seethan’s is not one of those; he’s in love with Rose.

A rather distasteful suitor of Mrs Maskill is Alan. Seethan doesn’t like him: ‘he smells like Portsmouth Harbour when the tide’s gone out.’ There are plenty of humorous asides, but they’re never there merely for jokey effect. 

Up to this point it is clear that Iles had experience in the armed forces and he clearly evokes the dangers and sheer horror of war, and the psychological damage suffered by many combatants.

Sadly, the event that Seethan triggers is not what had been planned. Instead, the result is the Sundering. ‘The Sundering left Earth’s reality torn.’ (p172) 

Then, Iles really gets inventive. What had been a space military scenario is transformed into a quest for the sake of love, with a colourful environment, fascinating characters and beasts, and an overshadowing threat.

There are a good number of fine descriptions. I particularly liked ‘a shower of brilliant sparks to scatter like panicked fairies.’ (p116) And a saying from Seethan’s mother, which has resonance even today: ‘Don’t look back, you’re not going that way.’ (p137) And: Dragonflies as long as Seethan’s arms buzzed about like military drones as they snatched the butterflies in mid-air.’ (p174) 

Did I mention horror? Yes, I did: ‘The thing … sat into the chair, it creaked as he sat back… one foot slowly tapping against the bare wooden floor. With each tap, small things fell to the floor and squirmed, wriggling their way towards the bed…’ (p125) Iles can do horror, sci-fi wonder, compassion, poignancy and full-blooded action.

No spoilers here, but there is a neat twist or two at the end, which several players did not see coming. While never preachy, the book says something about nature, conservation, aspects of love and hubris, as well as survival. 

Although it’s Book One, Gardens of Earth tells a complete story, so the reader is not left hanging.

Excellent stuff!

Saturday, 25 June 2022

WITH A MIND TO KILL - Book review



Anthony Horowitz’s third and final James Bond novel (2022) is an excellent finale. 

In many ways this feels and reads like an Ian Fleming novel. Horowitz has yet again captured the voice, the mood, the period, even to the point of naming his chapters such as ‘A Room with No View’. 

The story is taken up two weeks after the conclusion of Fleming’s The Man with the Golden Gun. So it’s set in 1965. You don’t have to have read this last Fleming novel, though it might help.

It begins with the funeral of Admiral Sir Miles Messervy, known to some as ‘M’. (Too many other characters in this chapter have names that begin with ‘M’ – Sir James Molony and Sir Charles Massinger). A dramatic beginning. But. Things are not what they seem. 

Bond is assigned to investigate a new organisation in Moscow, Stalnaya Ruka – Steel Hand. They seem to be planning some outrageous action that will tip the balance in Russia’s favour in the Cold War. We are then privy to the machinations of the members of Steel Hand guided by Colonel Boris who was previously responsible for brainwashing Bond after You Only Live Twice. This section is reminiscent of Fleming’s insight into the Smersh meeting in From Russia With Love, though somewhat shorter. In this scene there is a chilling exhibition of the power of Boris’s mind-control over a subordinate (p47).

Indeed, there are numerous cross references to previous assignments, villains, female conquests and books; none of them are heavy-handed, merely apt. 

Bond was ambivalent about the assignment. Re-entering the brainwashing lair was dangerous. Could he survive? Yet ‘Bond needed death, or the threat of death, as a constant companion. For him, it was the only way to live.’ (p209)

Needless to say there is a beautiful Russian woman, Katya. And he is faced with a particularly unpleasant Russian whose name is so unpronounceable it is invariable shortened to Colonel G.

A satisfying conclusion to Horowitz’s series.

Friday, 24 June 2022

GARDEN OF BEASTS - Book review



Jeffery Deaver’s standalone book – ‘A novel of Berlin 1936’ - was published in 2004 and it’s an interesting departure from his normal suspense psychological thrillers.

Paul Schumann is a mobster hitman who only kills those who deserve to die. ‘Committing an evil act to eliminate a greater evil’ (p93). Unfortunately his latest hit goes wrong and he is caught and given a choice: he can go to Berlin and kill Ernst, one of Hitler’s top men responsible for rearmament, or opt for the electric chair. A no-brainer.

Once in Berlin, however, things go awry and he is being hunted by a dogged Berlin Kripo detective Kohl. The depth of detail for the period is very impressive and never swamps the story.

Paul learns a great deal about the new Germany under Hitler who took power a mere three years earlier.  The SS ‘were originally Hitler’s guard detail. Now they’re another private army. The Gestapo is the secret police force, plainclothes. They’re small in number but very dangerous. Their jurisdiction is political crimes mostly. But in Germany now anything can be a political crime. You spit on the sidewalk, it’s an offense to the honor of the Leader so off you go to prison or a concentration camp.’ (p79)

Interior Minister Göring ‘ordered every policeman to carry a weapon to use them liberally. He’d
actually issued an edict saying that a policeman should be reprimanded for failing to shoot a suspect, but not for shooting someone who turned out to be innocent.’ (p84)

Kohl and his fellow policemen found it difficult to do their jobs particularly when interviewing potential witnesses: ‘since Hitler had come to power blindness had become the national malady…’ (p89)

Paul befriends his landlady Käthe and she tells him about her boyfriend who was brutally murdered by National Socialists in front of her near the lake in the Tiergarten, the Garden of Beasts. Just one more piece of evidence against the evil regime.

Deaver creates characters you sympathise with and believe in and fear for their safety in the treacherous state of the Third Reich. The claustrophobic environment, where children will betray parents to the authorities, where jobs, livelihoods and even lives could be forfeit if you don’t acquiesce, where freedom of speech is trampled upon: it must have been terrible to live there then. (Imagine how bad it could have been with the social media trolls and cancel brigade!)

A riveting page-turning thriller with a couple of neat twists – Deaver’s hallmark – and a satisfying resolution.


Thursday, 23 June 2022

NIGHT SCHOOL - Book review

Lee Child’s 2016 book is a flashback novel, taking us and Reacher to 1996. Intelligence has overheard that a deal is going down, and it involves an American and the price is a hundred million dollars.

Reacher is sent to so-called night school with two others: an FBI agent and a CIA analyst. Their homework – decide who the American is and what is worth that amount of money. And who is buying?

Reacher opts to recruit Sergeant Frances Neagley and skips school, heading for Berlin where he reckons the action is. He’s not wrong. Is he ever?

Accounting can  be boring, by all accounts. And bad accounting can be the harbinger of a cataclysm. To say more would involve spoilers.

Meanders more than usual; not one of his best.