10 June 2017

It's the Second Weekend in June

No reviews on a weekend

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9 June 2017

1886 Ties That Bind... by A.E. Wasserman

...A Story of Politics, Graft, and Greed

Amazon UK £15.95
Amazon US  $5.14 $30.83
Amazon CA n/a

Mystery / Romance / Family Drama (and much more!)
California / Washington

A refreshing and hugely enjoyable story set in California and Washington of 1886. Opening with an attention-grabbing scene that hits you like an unexpected train, the story settles nicely into the set-up of its characters: Lord Langford and Sally Baxter.

The chemistry between them is wonderful and they work well together as an unlikely couple – a farmer’s daughter and a Lord. Their bond grows deeper while they are investigating the murder of her brother on a train. Encountering nothing but bureaucracy and evasiveness, they pull out all the stops to get to the bottom of the murder.

I would have happily enjoyed this as historical romance, being so authentic in dialogue and settings. However, the author has woven a complex net of intrigue and background to the murder that makes the entire book so much more than just a mystery. As the title appropriately states, this deals with issues of politics, corruption and greed in a very accomplished way.

One of the best books I’ve read in a long time. Highly recommended.

© Christoph Fischer

Cover selected for Cover of the Month

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8 June 2017

Patrick's Journey by Roy T. Humphreys

Amazon UK £7.71
Amazon US $3.15 $12.33
Amazon CA n/a

Coming of age

This is a very pleasant and engaging read about a seventeen-year-old man from Ireland in 1790. Naive and youthful, Patrick soon finds himself out of his depth as he gets involved with the Irish resistance. The consequences are far-reaching and take him on a literal and personal journey.

It is fascinating that this story is based on a real person. Authentic and with a great amount of character depth and development, the novel is a rewarding reading experience. He meets many people who have an influence on his attitude towards life and his lot. There is also romance, which adds positively to the sense of tragedy and tension.

Only one small niggle, the ship on the cover appears to be of a 16th century Spanish Galleon type; while an impressive graphic, historically accurate it isn't. (Ships by the late 1700s were very different to this style - a comparison would be assuming an early 1908 Ford Model T was a popular car in 2017)

Sometimes the change of perspective is confusing and the historical detail can feel secondary to the metaphor of the journey, but these are minor distractions in an otherwise excellent novel that I would definitely recommend. 

© Christoph Fischer

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7 June 2017

To the Devil His Due by Paul Bernardi

To the Devil His Due by Paul Bernardi

Amazon UK £7.98 £3.64
Amazon US  $4.66 $12.50
Amazon CA $16.48


Reading To the Devil His Due, by Paul Bernardi, was like going back in time to books I used to enjoy some years ago, and it was fun to be reminded of that. The story is set in the Second World War, and uses many of the appropriate tropes. Senior British officers are formal and reserved, but highly talented and dedicated to carrying the conflict to the enemy. Their juniors are keen, if rough and ragged round the edges. Schemes and plans are daring, but risky, calling for considerable personal valour.

The plot of the book, indeed, bears some loose similarity to Where Eagles Dare. It follows the exploits of a small elite team carrying out commando style raids deep into Nazi Germany territory. There are night parachute drops into the target zone, frequent guard patrols, a handy tavern in sight of key locations, and a secretive approach to the target.

However, it is not at all a clone of that book, but focuses the reader's attention on rather different issues. For one thing, the build-up of the team training and early missions is told in much more detail, giving a sense of the demands made of people in this branch of military service. For another, we learn far more of the central character's back-story and motivation for the fight. And finally, the considerable wartime role of European nationals displaced by Nazi occupation is in the foreground, rather than presenting a purely English and American response.

The book had been well prepared and presented, though there were a few places where descriptions of places or people were repeated in close proximity. Another editing sweep would have caught these. Without wanting to give the plot away, the biggest mental leap was when the perspective suddenly changes away from the person we have followed throughout. This happens near to the end of the book, and the reader is not given any opportunity to adjust to the change.

The story - quite deliberately - ends with a question, which for me worked well. In passing, and alongside the overt plot development, a number of moral and pragmatic questions are raised concerning how war is waged. Paul has no intention of solving these, but prefers leaving them for the reader to ponder.

All in all, an interesting twist on the typical book of this kind. To the Devil His Due is narrow in focus, and sees the bigger issues of war through the conflicted eyes of a single man. Given that, it is an interesting and thoughtful addition to Second World War fiction.

© Richard Abbott

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6 June 2017

The Golem and the Djinni by Helene Wecker

Amazon UK £3.99 £11.44
Amazon US $17.15
Amazon CA $5.99

New York

The Golem and the Djinni, by Helene Wecker, has a thoroughly developed historical setting in New York around the year 1900. At that time, much of the city was divided into small zones each housing a particular cultural or ethnic group - the two which are most in view here are ones which house Jewish and Syrian immigrants. Every so often the characters make forays into more affluent regions.

However, as you would gather from the title, the story blends fantasy elements into that basic setting. These are introduced by mythical beings representing each of those two cultures. If you like, the immigrants have brought their own fantasies with them.

The golem, a manufactured creature derived from Jewish thought, is female in form, and was originally constructed to be wife to an Eastern European immigrant. He dies on board ship while heading towards America, leaving the golem Chava to find her own way through life. Her nature compels her to want to obey the spoken or unspoken wishes of the people around. This is a constant source of difficulty, as she tries to reconcile the conflicting demands of great numbers of people.

The djinni Ahmad - a creature of fire, and many centuries old - represents the Syrian area. He was bound long ago into human form by the work of a magician, and is trying to find out how to unravel the binding. His other struggle is how to avoid boredom without his true nature being discovered.

Inevitably the two come into contact, and try to resolve their opposite problems. One has been built for obedience and conformity, but now has to make her own choices. The other craves a wild and unrestrained life, but has to cope with limitation. Around that basic dilemma a collection of interesting human characters orbit, and the exploration of cross-cultural New York is itself fascinating.

One particular character - perhaps the only one with a truly malignant agenda, and at times a little cartòonish in comparison with other people - comes to dominate the plot line in the later stages, as the main protagonists each decide how to cope with his influence.

All in all a most enjoyable book, which I thoroughly recommend. It could appeal to anyone who likes some fantasy stirred in with their history.

© Richard Abbott

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5 June 2017

Charlatan by Kate Braithwaite

Amazon UK £3.39
Amazon US $4.39 $19.99
Amazon CA $23.56

mystery / witchcraft 
17th century

"HOW DO YOU KEEP THE LOVE OF THE KING OF FRANCE? 1676. In a hovel in the centre of Paris, the fortune-teller La Voisin holds a black mass, summoning the devil to help an unnamed client keep the love of the King of France, Louis XIV. Three years later, Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan, the King’s glamorous mistress, is nearly forty. She has borne Louis seven children but now seethes with rage as he falls for eighteen-year-old Angélique de Fontanges. At the same time, police chief La Reynie and his young assistant Bezons have uncovered a network of fortune-tellers and poisoners operating in the city. Athénaïs does not know it, but she is about to be named as a favoured client of the infamous La Voisin."

This novel has been skilfully crafted from seventeenth century French prison archive material, official transcripts resulting from hours and hours, years and years of interrogations into what one might loosely term ‘witchcraft’. The story opens with a flashback to a black mass, where a priest is conducting a ceremony over the body of a naked female. The reader witnesses the scene from different points of view and from that moment we are aware that a practised charlatan is at work. We are also invited to guess the identities of an aristocratic observer and her servant, although this is called into question later. Much is called into question later as little by little we come to know the people involved in this scene; their fears and motivations, and their personalities and ambitions.

The story follows three principal players in the investigation into La Voisin’s trade, for she is far more than a mere fortune-teller: a young, somewhat naïve police agent, the daughter of the fortune-teller, Marie Montvoisin, and Madame de Montespan, one-time mistress of the King of France and mother to seven of his children. As the story unfolds, we learn about these three very real people and start to understand what drives them, and this is where Kate Braithwaite’s skill lies. Madame de Montespan wants – needs – far more than a simple return to the King’s favours; she has her extended family’s future to consider – as her demanding sister constantly reminds her. She also wants the King to legitimize their children. It calls into question just how far she is prepared to go to achieve all this. Marie’s situation is less complex, but far sadder, something the initially innocent young policemen picks up on, to his detriment. He feels sorry for the girl, allows himself to be seduced by her then begins to doubt how far she is prepared to go to achieve her freedom. Behind the scenes and acting almost as a running commentary on the events is the self-confessed charlatan, Lesage, whose cynical world view informs on what is happening in the prison.

Apart from the sinister background to the trials, there is virtually no action in this novel: Madame de Montespan moves between royal apartments and a convent; Marie and Bezons’ interaction takes place in a prison room. To begin with, I began to wonder when the story was going to get started, but then realised that the narrative is a form of trial or examination in itself. The dialogue is handled with such finesse that as I learned certain details I simply had to read on to confirm my suspicions. The characters are complex, and there are definite turning points, but on the whole this is a quiet, contemplative novel. Kate Braithwaite has crafted a compelling and convincing piece of writing out of a real-life scandal. I look forward to reading more of her work. Definitely a Discovered Diamond.

© J.G. Harlond

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