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Condensed book reviews

Robert Harris / Fatherland : "What if" The Nazis had won WWII?" An honourable police investigator, discovers of the truth behind The Final Solution. Gripping story and well drawn characters. 9

Matt Haig / The Humans : Using an (at first) unpromising device of an alien visitation to talk about how we live now and why we do what we do. Well worth sticking with. 8

David Cavanaugh / Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life : Well told history of the most important cultural icon in my life. 10

Douglas E Richards / The Quantum Lens : Dark Energy provides the basis for a gritty tale of attempted world domination with the ultimate weapon in the hands of a religous zealot. 7

Carlos Ruiz Zafon / The Prisoner of Heaven : Third part of the Barcelona set trilogy, with the Cemetary Of Lost Books providing the catalyst of another very well written story. 9

Carlos Ruiz Zafon / The Angel's Game : Wonderfully written second instalment of life in Barcelona during the Franco years. Realism and fantasy collide into the lives of very real characters. 9

Neil Grimmett / The Threshing Circle : Small Cretan village rivalries have painful results during and after WWII. 6

Mathew Kneal / English Passengers : The history of the prison colony on Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), told through the eyes of European and Aboriginal peoples. Well written and engaging. 7

J G Ballard / Vermillion Sands : Very good prose style, fascinating situations, but no "real" people. All of the characters feel as though they are just there as props for the fantastical scenarios. 5

Joseph O'Neill / The Dog : Narrated by an American ex pat lawyer resident in Dubai ,working for a wealthy Lebanese family. Empty, vapid and pointless meanderings. Bland style - probably deliberate, but just produces total ennui. 4

Rosamund Luton / The Quality of Silence : hmmmm mixed thoughts. Well told tale, but with some annoying language ("super coolio"), and unbelievable actions by the main character. But I still needed to know how it finished, even if that proved to be completely unbelievable too. 6

Niall Williams / History of The Rain : Interesting style, witty, clever and touching at times. But... it doesn't go anywhere. The book is a stream of observations without a structure. 8

John Berendt / Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil : Fascinating portrayal of life in the genteel South of Georgia. Very well written and full of characters. 7

Donna Tart / The Goldfinch : A novel of huge breadth (not just it's thickness). Well written and often gripping. However I often felt that the protagonists would suddenly behave very much other than to the character's they'd developed. 8

Michael Simkins / Detour De France : To quote Stephen Fry - "Insightful, charming and trouser wipingly funny" - couldn't agree more. 8

Jessie Burton / The Miniaturist : 17th Century Amsterdam and the life of a new bride with an (illegally) gay husband. Nice prose style, intriguing story and a good window on that world. 7

Ernest Hemmingway / A Hemmingway Omnibus : Macho? - yes, but very engaging style. The WWI experiences are very insightful, but the attempts to explain why bull fighting isn't contemptible just don't work today. 6

Andy Weir / The Martian : Astronaut is abandoned on Mars assumed dead by his crew. Really badly written again (IMHO). Consists of an endless lecture on how to produce food on Mars - interesting concepts, but an awful read. 2

Luke Smithered / The Stone Man : The naive style, which at first I thought was a device, just turned out to be bad writing. The tedious "I said she said"...., abandoned early. 2

Emily St John Mandel / Station 11 : Post apocalypse group of wandering players meet various obstacles, as people re-organise without technology. Didn't enjoy the prose style and grew bored with the characters. 5

Richard Balls / Be Stiff : The Stiff Records Story. Very engaging and enthusiastic, especially in the pre-stiff and early Stiff periods. Good interviews with the important characters, but starts to pall a bit in the later stages. 7

Levison Wood / Walking The Nile : Book of the TV series. Quite a depressing read, as he walks through one war-torn, genocidal country after another. Well written and informative. 7

Michael Faber / The Book of Strange New Things : A born-again preacher travels to an alien planet to preach to the "heathen". Incredibly dull given the premise of the story, and told in such a blank unfeeling way too. 5

John Banville / The Newton Letter : A beautiful prose style, describing deeply flawed characters. A biographer finds "unusual" love in rural Ireland while writing a biography of Newton. 8

Neil Gaiman / Stardust : Fairytale account of boys search for a fallen star to give to his love. Childish. 3

Sherman Alexie / Reservation Blues : Robert Johnson visits an American Indian reservation after his death, to teach them The Blues. A North American attempt at Magic Realism, and too twee to stomach. 3

John Williams / Stoner - A Novel : Disappointingly dull account of a mid-west farm boy who studies English Literature and becomes a teacher. 5

David Mitchell / The Bone Clocks : As well written and constructed as his previous works, but the Sci-Fi angle was just too preposterous to accept. 7

Andrew Miller / Pure : Fictionalised account of the true story around the clearing out of the infamous Parisian cemetery "Les Innocents", heightened by the shadow of the French Revolution on the horizon. 8

Steve Barron / Egg 'n Chips & Billy Jean : Interesting account of life as a promo video maker in the music business at the height of MTV et al. 6

Michael Chabon / Wonder Boys : I've always loved Chabon's books, but I was not so impressed this time. The fact that all the characters were pretty unpleasant didn't help, but the story itself just seemed to have nowhere to go. 5

Olivia Laing / The Trip To Echo Spring - Writers and Drinking : A difficult read in some respects, learning the details of how great writers like Hemmingway and Fitzgerald destroyed themselves and those around them. Never answers the question of a link between their illness and creativity. 8

Rachel Joyce / The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry : I really tried to carry on beyond the first few chapters, as it was so well liked on Amazon, but gave up. I just wasn't interested in the protagonists, and it wasn't nearly as funny as suggested. 3

Stewart Lee / How I escaped My Certain Fate : Really interesting description of the process involved in creating and performing stand up comedy. His intelligence shines through, and it's very well written. AND he's a Fall fan, what else can I say. 9

Patrick McGuiness / Other People's Countries : Best thing I've read for years. Wonderful poetic prose (well he is a poet after all), and a really warm, captivating telling of the Belgium that he grew up in. I literally didn't want it to end. 10

John Banville / Birchwood : This is more like it. Odd people's lives at the time of the Molly Maguires and the Potato Famine in Ireland. Brilliant prose style and vivid characterisation, grips even while a fairly unpleasant story unfolds. 8

Dan Rhodes / This Is life : A young girl in Paris looks after a baby and has adventures. Described as hilarious in the reviews - sorry my sense of humour must have dropped off when I wasn't looking. 3

George Herman / A Comedy of Murders : Leonardo Da Vinci and a Dwarf solve crimes in and around Venice at the time of the Borgias... yes as daft as it sounds I'm afraid. 3

Bob Stanley / Yeah, Yeah, Yeah, The Story of Modern Pop : Excellent run through from WWII to the present. Well argued, informative, and full of his own passion. 8

Joseph Heller / Catch 22 : Another classic re-read. Even better now, with the background knowledge gained since I last read it. Funny, horrific and touching, often within a sentence. 9

Kinky Friedman / Spanking Watson : Great fun and full of wisecracking from The Kinkster. 8

Pasi Ilmari Jaaskalainen / The Rabbit Back Literature Society : Scandi-Magic Realism, but "where's the beef?", too light and insubstantial for me. 3

Hugh Andersey-Williams / Periodic Tales: The Curious Lives of the Elements : Brilliant. Enough science to keep me interested, enough anecdotes to fascinate, well researched and very well written. 9

P G Woodehouse / Jeeves and Wooster Collection Vol.1 : Apologies to Stephen Fry, I really tried hard here, but I just didn't find it funny enough to make it beyond 100 pages. 4

Jenny Erpenbeck / Visitation : I'm obviously just not trying, but struggles to get beyond the first 50 pages - so dull and without hooks or characters to take any interest in. 2

Michael Chabon / Telegraph Avenue : Shows all his usual style. Centres on a local second hand record store, and the lives of the (mainly) black community it touches. Questions abound around "what is progress?". 8

Chris Adrian / The Great Night : "Magical Realism" for the LA hipster. No meat, rather silly and pointless - sorry. 3

Alex Ross / The Rest Is Noise : Excellent historical placement of classical music in the 20th century. The various movements are well described in relation to world events. 9

Carol Birch / Jamrach's Menagerie : Starts well, interesting style and description of life at the bottom of the ladder. Gets bogged down in long slow chapters about death adrift on the sea. 6

Khaled Hosseini / A Thousand Splendid Suns : Pretty unremittingly painful telling of the recent history of Afghanistan through the eyes of a young girl growing up through various awful regimes. Learing experience. 7

Ned Beauman / Boxer Beetle : Century jumping tales of fascism, Nazism and class divides. Interesting characters and well told, if unsatisfying. 7

Nikolai Gogol / The Overcoat & Other Short Stories : Brilliant, humorous and satirical stories full of great characters. A joy to re-read. 9

Andres Neuman / Traveller of The Century : Kafkaesque story of a traveller's obsessions within a strange city. Written pretty much without punctuation so often hard to follow who is speaking. 6

Carlos Ruiz Zafon / The Shadow of The Wind : Set in post WWII in Barcelona, a very engaging story of a boy growing up obsessed by a disappeared author, and his efforts to find out the truth about his life. Lovely prose style. 9

David Mitchell / Number9Dream : Japanese youth with a dysfunctional childhood goes to find his unknown father in Tokyo. Slides in and out of fantasy in a pleasing way. As well written as you'd expect. 9

C J Sansom / Dissolution : Whodunit in the world of the dissolution of the monasteries. A very different Cromwell to Mantel's. Nice atmosphere maintained to the end. 8

Jose Saramago / Cain : Portuguese Nobel Laureate, re-tells the early stories of The Old Testament, gently pointing out their historical absurdity. Beautifully written. 7

David Mitchell / The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoote : Fascinating insight into 16th century Japan and it's non-engagement with the world. Great story telling structure and 'real' characters. 9

David Mitchell / Black Swan Green : The everyday life of a young teenage boy becomes really engaging. Very well constructed and poetic. 8

Charles Palliser / The Quincunx : Abandoned after third attempt to get beyond p.200. Dickensian misery and treachery - but I just didn't care about any of the characters. 5

Sjon / The Whispering Muse : Existential musing Scandinavian style, fish men and tall tales. Nicely written, but empty somehow. 7

Shehan Karunatilaka / Chinaman : Learning a little of Shrilankan history and political corruption, through the back door of cricket and cricketing literature. 9

Danny Baker / Going to Sea In a Sieve : Very engaging, very well written, funny and informative. Expresses just what I felt on discovery of "underground" music. 9

Esi Edugyan / Half Blood Blues : Nice prose, but a little un-engaging, despite the theme being about the fate of (mainly) black jazz musicians in 2nd World War Germany & Paris : the "star" is just not believable. 7

Mark E Smith / Renegade : Can't be unbiased here, the man's a musical genius - an oft overused word. The book is funny, sharp (as expected), but it almost illustrates why "you should never meet your heroes". 8

Iain M Banks / Use of Weapons : Imaginative Sci-Fi that's actually so well written, it makes the leaps of imagination plausible. 8

Hilary Mantel / Bring Up The Bodies : Continues on from 'Wolf Hall'. Again a great prose style, but perhaps I'd just had enough of the characters, and so I got tired before the end. 7

Robert Graves / I Claudius : Great insight into both the way of life and the social and political intrigues of the Roman Empire. It works very well as a fictional biography of Claudius by Graves. 8

John Banville / Doctor Copernicus : Fictionalised biography of the man who showed the truth of the heliocentric arrangement of our solar system. Great prose style again. 8

Michael Moorcock / King of The City : The history of 'modern' London told through the lens of a fictional paparazzi. Huge scope of characters, both imaginary and real. 8

Marcus Berkmann / A Shed of One's Own : The myth of 'Mid-life Crisis' analysed and punctured with humour, and sometimes uncomfortable truth. 7

Hazel Plater / Riverside : Gone but never forgotten. The site of many of my most memorable musical experiences. History is told mainly with anecdotes from those involved. 9

John Man / Xanadu : Following in Marco Polo's footsteps to China. Confirming the (probably) true from the false in Polo's writings. Starts well but tires 2/3rds in. 7

Martin Kelner / When Will I Be Famous? : Funny and affectionate look at those teetering on the edge of Showbiz, sure that one day their time will come. 9

John Banville / Mefisto : Beautifully written. Though it deals with fairly depressing low-life scenes, it completely engages by its prose style. 9

Alex Ferguson [no not that one!] / The Pineapple King of Jarrow & Uncle Freddie and The Prince of Wales: A young boy's experiences of Jarrow between the wars. Beautiful style, funny and touching. 10

Albert Camus / The Plague : Another old re-read. Quality will out - still engages, intrigues and challenges. 8

Benjamin Daniels / Confessions of a GP : Neither funny enough, nor serious enough, to keep the interest. 3

Tom Holt / Faust Among Equals : Comic re-telling of the Faust myth, set in the modern corporate world. Not that funny and poorly written too. 3

Bill Bryson / At Home : Lots of intriguing derivations and interesting historical detail, but not enough humour. 7

Franz Kafka / The Trial : Re-read; classic rampant paranoia; wonderful stuff. 9

Thomas Levenson / Newton & The Counterfeiters : The first half is good on his early life. But it tires thereafter. 7

Patrick McGuinness / The Last 100 Days : The collapse of Nicolae Ceausescu's regime told in personal recollections of relationships. 8

Rosemary Sutcliffe / Eagle of the 9th : 3 books in 1 - Runs out of steam 2/3rds in, otherwise nice details of life in the Legion. 6

Gavin Menzies / 1434 : Posits that the Chinese knew all about & visited The Americas - whether they did or not is still moot, but it's actually poorly written. 4

Iain M Banks / Player of Games : Set long in the future, where games become a political & social mainstay, replacing politics. 7

Michael Chambon / Gentlemen of the Road: Middle Eastern, middle ages intrigue - a good adventure and travelogue. 8

Nick Harkaway / The Gone Away World: A future post-apocalyptic dystopia. 7

Barbara Kingsolver / The Lacuna: Mexico + Trotsky + McCarthy + Art + Politics + love = very good historically based fiction with a great prose style. 8

Tony Hawks / A Piano in the Pyrenees: Buying a place in France. No where near as good as his earlier books. 6

William Boyd / Restless: WWII spying and the effects it produces today. 7

Ruth Downie / Ruso and the Disappearing Women: A 'Doctor' in Roman Britain solves murders. 7

Alex Kaprianos / Sound Bites: Collection of his Guardian articles, centring around food experiences while on tour with Franz Ferdinand - great prose style. 9

Hilary Mantel / Wolf Hall: Thomas Cromwell & Henry VIII, a great prose style and very informative (almost by accident). 8

John Le Carre / The Spy Who Came In From the Cold: Cold war spying in an atmosphere of mean spirited officialdom. 7

Philip Jose Farmer / The World of Tiers: Fantasy of parallel universes. Not as good as when I it read aged 15. "The past is a foreign country.." 5

Brian Aldiss / Hothouse: Incredibly imaginative - a future world where the plants have taken over. Style not up to the challenge of content. 7

H G Wells / The War of the Worlds: Tripods ahoy. 6

Herman Melville / Moby Dick: More than a big fish, almost an American Brothers Karamazov. All the questions of human existence are in here somewhere. 9

Neal Stephenson / The Diamond Age: An interesting premise, but again poor characterisation and style. 6

Ian Mortimer / The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England: Dull. 5

Thomas Trofimuk / Waiting for Columbus: Arty Mills & Boon. 4

George Melly / Owning Up: Funny, touching and often very moving. A sadly missed character. 8

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