A Town Like Ours- Alexander Cade

A Town Like Ours

Satire; this sketch on life is dripping with it. Factually, there are no unflawed, boringly normal, characters in the entire and wide cast of this book. Every one of them is easily mockable. The page to page writing is very good, the story so ridiculous though so human that you sort of know that all the elements are plausible and common, though rarely if ever so concentrated even in one small backwater on the road from and to only marginally less isolated nowhere.

The writing is well enough structured that the reading is effortless and entertaining. Description is crisp and focused. Characters are all individualistic enough to be remembered or, if we have been distracted, to be easily reminded of in one or two clear phrases. One comic pratfall flows effortlessly into the next, so that I could not help but find myself in the final chapters almost before I knew what a totally ridiculous ride Cade was taking me on. There we come to what is for me the only weakness in the book, the lack of climatic resolution, the looseness of the final knitting. Does that matter in such a book? Probably not. This isn’t a thriller that desperately needs conclusion, it is more of a wry look at the ridiculousness, the small mindedness, the gullible incompetence that we all occasionally suffer from, and most especially those arrogant individuals that think they never do.

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Succubus- Regis P. Sheehan

Succubus

This is an effortless read, not because the plot is simple, but because it is accurately written without the wads of supporting, though ultimately unnecessary detail common to so many spy/espionage thrillers. One could never describe Succubus as a ‘fat book’, engorged by superfluous, minutely detailed, descriptive paragraphs. This book is in a series of what I assume to be similarly economic-with-words novels. In this case classification as a novella has some credence, especially when the factual historical background is mentally separated into prologue. Inevitably, the so recent backstory will seem superfluous to some readers, but it certainly helps add a quality of realism to the fictional events whatever one’s previous knowledge of world affairs. I found it very easy to buy into the book as truth, which in a sense I’m sure it is. I’m sure that all the personal story elements have been accurately mirrored many times in the history of modern-day Korea.

The plot is exciting, with the traction to engage the reader despite the aforementioned economic writing style. We don’t have to be told how the blood drips, how the bullet distorts the flesh, how the cold creeps into ill-nourished bones to know, to see these terrors in the mind’s eye. Though this work is light on superfluous sentiment we are given a sufficiency of insight for us to generate our own details of character and those momentarily described scenes.

The directness of the writing is perhaps indicative of the work of a writer that has spent a working life at the sharp end of security and intelligence services, where long sentimental reflection is at best a dangerous luxury. Sheehan’s writing perhaps reflects a certain detached intensity in his own psychological make-up. We don’t get the intellectual chill of Le Carré, or the bombastic, and literary graphic detailed of great adventure and conspiracy writers like Wilber Smith or Tom Clancy but we do nevertheless get plenty of sharp observation.

Sheehan is very fond of using real and, what in relative ignorance I choose to guess are, realistic but invented acronyms. I point this out only because they are perhaps at times, overused, this being a story rather than a State Department report. I can see how their abundant use was by way of adding to the matter of fact realism, but also just perhaps a few were unnecessary.

The upsurge of significant news currently emanating from the Korean Peninsula certainly adds to this work’s poignancy. I have no difficulty in giving this work the full five stars on those sites that demand those crude endorsements. However, in the edition I read there are a few annoying copy errors. I assume that these will be addressed if ever Sheehan finds a void in his agenda. The only thing I don’t comprehend is the relevance of the book’s title, though I can believe that it would be very pertinent to the spy novel with a clear seductress as its pivotal character.

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Far Away and Further- Patrick Burns

Farawayandfurther

This memoir is one of little vignettes set in different times and places as Burns’s life took him around the world. At times the stories are very ‘familiar’ to one of my age and relative privilege, as we baby-boomers have seen the world open out under the blast of the airline jet engine. However, they should appeal to a much wider audience. Burns is good at drawing one into his observations of times and places, now changed or changing, so helping one appreciate the ups and downs of living his sort of middle-class, often-relocated, lifestyle.

Nowadays, travel seems to be ever more routine and ever less exotic, and of course it never has been all fun. Burns spares us from many of the mundane difficulties, the personal psychology, of constantly moving a family from one short foreign posting to another, a burden that anyway regularly falls heaviest on partners and young families.

This is a book of twenty random assembled short stories taken from a full and industrious life, that began with a childhood centred in Rotherham, England, and eventually encompassed locations as scattered as Buenos Aires, Ann Arbor and Guangzhou.

Increasingly, as the world shrinks, the world-wide business career is conducted from one, tacky, noisy, communal space, in Milton Keynes, or Santa Clara, and/or from the home-based ‘office’. Foreign postings may well be becoming a thing of the past for all but the most select of ‘business’ managers. There will always be economic migrants, but probably these will decreasingly be those in the cadre structure of international firms that once relocated so very often. The experience of this businessman posted so far and wide may well soon read like distant history, even if politics and strife should allow us to continue our addiction to distant ‘package’ holiday travel.

If you like memoir and particularly short, pithy stories snapped from personal histories, you should love this book. Patrick Burns has had a life full of interesting anecdotal incidents, which he has penned in this entertaining and personally modest script. One feels that he never strays from simple, honest, unexaggerated truth and thus created these edifying glimpses into his personal history. This isn’t autobiography designed, and so often failing, to be awe-inspiring; this isn’t look at me, aren’t I special, this is look at the special, often extraordinary people, I have been lucky enough to journey with. This book is one of those rare memoirs that easily holds my rapt attention.

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The Colonel and the Bee- Patrick Canning

The Colonel and Bee

This is classic Steampunk genre with a morality tale or two, writ large. The young teenaged, Beatrix, escapes a suitably Dickensian circus to travel the world on a multi-story dirigible, a craft common to so much of the genre.

The adventure, the search for the long-hidden artefact, is entertaining, even though the elements that build the story are somewhat contrived and sometimes less than well knitted together. However, the words themselves are nicely knotted and well cast-off. A ‘Victorian’ tone is achieved and displayed well enough, onto which is painted vivid pictures of both the cast of characters and the world in which they are played. Comedy is a consisted chord, tongue-in-cheek rather than riotously funny. The Colonel is all comic foil, a wild mix of Phileas Fogg, MacDonald Frazer’s Flashman, and Captain Pugwash. It is his eccentricity rather than any string of logic that binds the book.

I am mystified as to what age group the author was aiming at, if any, but certainly its general tone leans most heavily towards the age of its heroine, the young teenager, Beatrix. However, I must point out that even in my seventh decade, I was well entertained. Adventure books, especially ones like this, of a Disneyesk nature, tend to be of liked or loathed flavours throughout a life rather than attractive in a certain decade.

Death is treated with a certain flippancy, being generally confined to the less nice people. A great deal is sexually implied, though the subject detail is suitably distant. That the Colonel is of a particularly libertine, rakish, nature is obvious from early in the book. We must worry at first about the abused young lady coming into the Colonel’s household, and later about the character of one of the darker characters. We are though, kept aloft in lighter airs, in the comical balloon.

My overall feeling was one more of reading the detailed story behind a cartoon strip than a book with any profound depth. I found myself to be seized in a picture world that blended Herge’s Tin Tin and Moore’s Extraordinary Gentlemen. Certainly, the vivid scenes that the prose brings to my mind is the real strength of the book, a world of solid characters that somehow never quite distil from their comic cartoon into the world we live in.

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The Change Chronicles- Paula Friedman

The Change Chronicles

This book is dripping with realism, with historic realities, stuffed full of the issues of the then still young baby-boomer generation. We are immersed, near drowning, in the real issues of a student body that feared the bomb: but feared man’s inhumanity to man far more. We are with the issues of the post-war generation that had to make stark individual choices between defying the generally respected government apparatus of their parents and grandparents, by radically opposing neo-colonial war, or joining the ranks of those that might have to kill as soldiers, or certainly by proxy, those fighting for their homes and their innocent children in distant lands.

As the body-bags and damaged young men, returned from the war in ever greater numbers a social divide split Berkeley, this read’s setting, then West-Coast America, and eventually the ‘free world’. Additionally, the boomer generation were deep in the already progressing struggle against racism and, as the ‘60s progressed, the drive towards sexual equality was gaining a long-dormant momentum. A tsunami of social consciousness grew out of the student Free Speech Movement, the roots of the 60s Counterculture, and swelled out so far and so deep that even today we feel its dissipated pull. Culture has seen fundamental change, despite recent pressures to reset the clocks of history from many right of centre and ‘religious’ groups.

Nora is at the centre of the social struggle, a child of the ‘50s, a daughter of parent’s born in the ‘20s and ‘30s. The older generation that had suffered the deprivations and often the full horrors of world war and who now struggled to understand the anti-establishmentarianism of so many of their kids. In 1966, the parental generation was as psychologically distant from the lives of their children as any times have seen. But quite naturally, establishment structure and deeply ingrained cultural expectations, hung heavy shadows over even the most progressive. No generation can reject all the expectations of their upbringing. Nora, like those around her, was struggling with her personal place in the world as much as with grand designs. This is so vividly drawn in this story as the young unmarried mother feels little choice but to give up her new-born child. This is a chronicle of change for one women in a social fabric that was constantly melting and reforming around her.

Friedman’s brilliant writing lets us see how the new sexual permissiveness of late ‘60s youth is overshadowed by old moralities. For example, we see how many men were all-too-ready to enjoy new sexual freedoms but without accepting the fullness of accrued responsibility. We see the young women, who are equally driven by new social permissiveness, but are so often left abandoned to face single parenthood, still then illegal abortion, or cruel adoption. The pill, though a birth control reality from 1960 onwards, was still years away from available to all but a few women; or in many territories and especially among their many religious and cultural groups, any women whatsoever. The 1960s were more about changed expectations than the progress that decade unleashed, just as previous history had paved the groundwork for racial equality, and the ‘70s would soon for the rainbow of sexuality.

Friedman draws us through every significant thought and fear, not just of the principle character, Nora, but her whole generation of educated, informed, and variably enlightened young activists. She represents a post-war generation that was desperate to change society, rather than just their own fortunes. As always, change brought mixed and shifting actions and conflicting opinions even between those that held aloft the very same flags. This is a book that in an equal universe should find a place as the ‘lighter’ but equally socially enlightening read, complementing iconic works from Weinberg, Ginsberg and so many well-recognised others. This book should be on the shelves, available to all those that seek insight into the social tapestry behind songs of Dylan, Baez and Lennon and so many more. This book is so much part of the essential history of those in my wide generation that fought with the banner, the guitar and the pen, and with the desperate but sadly naive conviction that the world could be made better for all, not just those blessed by God to have the most money and the most destructive guns. Of course, as in all generations the baby-boomers fill all areas of the political spectrum, though for a time there was promise of us really being something different; a truly progressive generation. So incidentally, it’s feels so sadly poignant that our now senior, empowered generation, is making such a mess of its responsibilities to humanity and this planet. But despite abject failings those that marched can at least find some relief in the social earthquake that is still shaking out new and profound chronicles of hopefully sustainable change, across so much of the Earth. Despite everything, the wind of change that blew from Berkeley in the ‘60s has left an indelible footprint on social history, and Friedman’s book gives us a glimpse into the countercultural foundations of our changing social fabric. I feel so fortified when reading Friedman’s deeply woven commentary on the early determined stands of so many of our post-war generation. This goes some small way towards alleviating the sense of shame brought on so many of us by the actions of the aging boomer leadership, which conspires to reverse so very much of what Friedman and her contemporaries achieved. Sad though many aspects of this book are the overall feel is one of positivity, a banner flown for the progressive spirit.

This is quality writing that lets one breath in the winds of change that may have lost its acute direction, but whose influence is felt in so many aspects of the world today, including currently in hashtag metoo, in the wider struggles for social justice, human rights and for our basic freedom of speech. We have hopefully passed onto our children enough social conscience to bring down the new savage capitalism and currently growing fascist tendencies. This is a book about some of the ordinary voices in an extraordinary movement, in the chronicles of change. This read is an intimate look behind the placards and politics of a generation that once dared to march, not for themselves, but for a better world.

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The Last Gods of Indochine- Samuel Ferrer

The last Gods

Great writing, and an interesting use of historical fiction with two separate but ultimately connected storylines from the past. The first story is set in the 13th Century reign of the Khmer King Jayavarman VIII and the second between the 1860s and1920s. This is a well written quality read. I found every chapter to be entertaining in of itself and so maintaining a strong desire to read on. I would have liked an ending with a few less swirling dreams and rather more ‘facts’. Most of the characters names are borrowed from history but precious little that is actually known about them. With such a thin veneer of known history perhaps the ending had to be mysterious and ephemeral, leaving a host of possible paths along with the unsubstantiated assertion that science and not religions’ unprovable possibilities dictates our fate.

I am critical of historical fiction that use long dead names but so little of the admittedly thin history. I can forgive such a high degree of storytelling in the ancient plot, but the use of real people from modern history with the employment of so little factual information about them is hard to accept. Nevertheless, I can’t imagine that many living relatives will find much to question. Ferrer avoids deformation of character and we are already a century away from their variously esteemed lives. The broad-brush strokes all feel to accurately reflect the periods, and magic aside, are very believable. Perhaps I am allowing my love of history to make me over critical of this historical fiction, and certainly many reviews suggest that I am.

Ferrer’s descriptive writing is first class. I can imagine that all his readers entertain the same picture and social interactions almost exactly as I do. I could easily imagine myself to be an observer on the ’passenger’ boat, in the biplane, or climbing the walls of Angkor Wat. I could smell the gangrene, feel the shacking earth, hear the booming shells, recalled in the mind of the volunteer auxiliary nurse, from the front-line hospital wards of WWI. I could feel that I was amongst elephants, monkeys and exotic people in two distinctly woven times in Indochina.

Why does the title use the word Indochine rather than Indochina, when it is written in English? I have no idea. I see no sign of a French language version of this book. And why the last gods, when that certainly isn’t in any way the case? Perhaps, once more my concern is isolated and obtuse.

This is a very enjoyable read, especially for those that like to set their minds on travels through distant times and civilisations. Five stars, where those stupidly uninformative and variably indicative ‘likes’ are required. This book is strong on description that drives it plot rather than plot that needs description between its scaffolding. Good writers can take one anywhere in time, real or imaginary, Ferrer can do that with aplomb.

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The Lumberjack- Erik Martin Willén

The Lumberjack

Willén, in his first departure from sf space adventure/opera, has written a present-day thriller set in a generic northern forest reserve territory of the USA. Once begun the book is hard to put down, as one is driven on by the pace and tension in the story. The character elements of the evil antagonist bound along the edge of implausibility, on a tightrope between impossible and just about conceavible human physicality. In contrast, the rest of the cast of good, bad and pretty are within a more normal range of observable humanity. The plot is just about conceivable, except for the behaviour of a pack of wolves. We note that the author is Scandinavian, so of a population that has been responsible, more than any other, for demonising the wolf. The author also seems keen to exaggerate the danger from the cougar, or mountain lion as many Americans choose to call the creature. Both the cougar and wolf can on rare occasions be a genuine threat to even uninjured, but isolated, humans, especially if an animal feels cornered. But neither is exactly the danger to man in the way that brown bears are. The wild life, non-human and human is extraordinarily dangerous in this neck of the woods. The book is certainly both great entertainment and the provider of a good adrenaline rush. Anyway, for the cause, thriller writers have never been frightened to claim that some maligned animal or other is almost as dangerous a predator of humans as is another human.

The idea of the eco-warrior, that so loves nature that he would rather see the devastation of mankind than nature is certainly not new. As our greedy species slowly destroys the planet on which we live, there will be many more examples not just in fiction but in our real lives. I have a great deal of sympathy for the ‘evil killer’ in this story, and that probably caused me to be less bothered about some of the often self-absorbed and shallow victims than I should. I would far rather live with a few billion less people and a more natural balance of wildlife. From the Earth’s point of view, we are very far short of describable as a gift from God. Perhaps in the next instalment, if Willén writes one, the lycanthrope will have a substantial degree of ‘normal’ human support. The flip-side of my reluctance to condemn the killer will surely mean that the more humanist reader, with greater empathy for the main characters, will probably enjoy the chase even more than I did.

This book would benefit from a good edit, as a few sloppy sentences and typos take away some of the shine of quality. Despite that, I feel no hesitation in giving five stars as an entertainment. Willén generates constant interest and, in crucial scenes, real tension. There are a couple of plot weaknesses, stretch marks rather than holes, as events in different locations run in rough parallel, but not ones that detract seriously from the page turning rush. This is a great holiday read, that can be put down between bus journeys or swims, as enjoyment doesn’t require a very deep concentrate on plot detail. This is anything but an over-complicated whodunit type of thriller. But for a stronger attention to the detail of sentence structure and perhaps the inclusion of a few deeper nuances of plot, ‘the lumberjack’ could be a modern equal of any Alistair Maclean thriller. I am sure I will read other books by this author to add to this, and to the first of the Nastragall space operas that I read and reviewed a couple of year ago.

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How We End Up- Douglas Wells

How We End Up

I was swept along by this multi-shaded literary social drama. Even when the colour of life was bright dark shadows always lingered, ready to overwhelm any, or all, of the three main characters. On the face of it, these people have been dealt a more than reasonably favourable hand in life, but none played it out at all well. This is a deep-dredging read full of soul searching, variously damaged character and of the randomness of life’s dice that are never afraid to roll. We see great opportunity contriving to yield far from great results. Sometimes the less than satisfactory play of events, emotions, preferences and addictions are overcome by great strength of character, and yet more often they are compounded by ingrained flaws.

This book is not only well written, it is also pacey and extremely gripping drama. The characters all feel real to me, being an individual whom can be seen to have perhaps made less of himself than apparent opportunity might suggest. I guess that most people might agree that they’ve underachieved in some key ways, if they are prepared to dissect their lives with brutal honesty. Brutal honesty isn’t something that hides between the lines in this books pages.

Some readers appear to find some comedy in the characters flaws. I found little of that, apart from an occasional smear of black humour. However, there is certainly cartloads of irony in certain attributes that should/could have given life-long advantage, but which were overwhelmed by deep-running rivers of inherently flawed character. Wells has a deep understanding of intrinsic, often genetic, behaviour that usually dictates life despite rather than because of the paths we are placed on, and the deviations we discover for ourselves. We are what we are. The frog will always be a frog. Dreaming of being a famous poet or a princess may just lead one that way, but even if the path is found, more than often, one’s innate character fails to let one stay on it.

Finally, on the basis that any news is good for advertising, then Bushmills whisky should do very well out of this book. I wonder if the brand may be the author’s favourite tipple, or perhaps he just has shares in this famous old Northern Ireland Distillery.

El Cajon- Joel Shapiro

ElCajon

One thing is for certain- this book gives El Cajon, California one heck of a reputation and one no city would want. Another thing, for certain- people don’t do well when addicted to Vicodin. Opiate addiction is very topical. One can only hope the medics and pharma people get a conscience before too many more people have their lives torn apart by addictive prescription drugs. But what the heck has that got to do with this book. Well, apart from the fact that Haim, the first-person narrator, is still somehow alive and even gets a few things right, there is a serious warning here. We see a few heroic deeds, but not from an actor one would ever wish to emulate. He is the very antithesis of John, Die Hard, McClane. A film about Haim Baker would not create quite the same sort of wannabe buzz.

Before you take a first overdose on opiate-based medicines, read this book. However, don’t read this book if you are planning a trip to San Diego County, unless you are open to having your mind changed.

This is a book which quickly becomes hard to put down, but not necessarily because you are enjoying it. Frustration with the first person, no hoper is going to drive you to distraction. Like the effect of the dumb principle in the high-tension film drama, one can’t believe the stupidity for walking into trouble, while not being quite irritated enough to switch channels. Actually, that is probably not so different to having a mild addiction to Vicodin.

This book is extremely violent and at times exceedingly crude. Urine and blood seem to be constantly pouring in equal and often mixed volumes. And this book gets the near fatal stages of opioid addiction about right- except that PI Haim Baker somehow still manages to function, and even kill the right bad people. The book also highlights the terrible world of people trafficking, focussed here on girls bashed and drugged into the sex industry. Actually, that part of the book is particularly sickening. Sickening for the sane and those merely into substance rather than people abuse, that is! But, just as we know that nearly every neighbourhood has an addict at deaths door, we also know that not all our children are safe wheresoever we live. I choose to see a second serious message from Shapiro. That even in places with a veneer of respectability such abuses can be hidden.

The writing is fast paced, and generally of a good quality. However, the grammar is far from conventional. For example, the disappearance of the period, the comma, is used to convey rapid and often chaotic and stressed, stream of consciousness, thought. Shapiro writes well enough to usually pull this off. However, one would want to load up with plenty of oxygen before reading some passages aloud. Even if there was pause for breath, one would have to check the audience first. Haim isn’t exactly shy about some excruciatingly detailed body malfunctions.

Haim is like the most down-beaten, unprepossessing, suicidally inclined private eye one has ever read about, and then some. If it wasn’t for the kindness buried in his soul and for the reported damage in his personal life which has helped draw him low, many might jettison the read unfinished. That would be a pity. But to sustain any credibility, either Haim dies next time out, or breaks his addiction.

Yes, the book deserves five somethings, though five pain killing white tablets may be more appropriate that five yellow stars. But for those that eagerly consume thrillers in which the least bad guy eventually wins this is a good fix. I would absolutely recommend this book for those that like no-holes plugged entertainment. The pictures Shapiro paints look disgustingly real to this reader.

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Ape Mind, Old Mind, New Mind- John Wylie

ApeMindWylie

A well written academic book written in a style and at a scientific level that most of us can connect with, even if we can’t quite compute all the scholarly depth that make up the full picture. I definitely place myself in ‘the superficial understanding’ category but never felt intimidated by complexity. Wylie reexplores evolutionary biology bringing into play his clinical and philosophical knowledge and private observations in the fields of psychology, psychiatry, psychotherapy, and medicine. Wylie’s observations which build into a broad psychological theory that fits as a complementary extension to classic Darwinism, add considerably to our conventional understanding of human evolution. With the obvious exception of many dogmatic scripturalists, I think this book has a lot for all those interested in why we are what we are questions. Wylie adds to our understanding of personality evolution, looking at the intellectual creature that with all the psychological baggage we carry from our ancestors.

I did rather question some of what I read to be rather afterthought attempts to tie in sacred spirituality and philosophy. I guess some attempt at this is, though, beneficial if it might draw in all but the most dogmatic of ‘Abrahamists’. Anyway, arguably, religion could not be left out of a fully rounded ‘thesis’. Otherwise I had no personal issues with any ideas in this very well written book. Nearly always, Wylie found simple ways of distilling out the complexity of his arguments. A few more real-life anecdotes from Wylie’s career would I’m sure add a great deal of enjoyment for the general reader, without losing the focus required by the more scholastic. This is a serious book, exploring the whys and wherefores from a full range of psychological illnesses balanced against normal, (average), behaviours, that make us the deep thinking but not always rational creatures that we have become.

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