The Sweet Oil of Vitriol: A Tom Glaze Hit, by Daniel Eagleton, Reviewed.

sweet oil of vitriol

This is a different type of thriller. Dealing with the murky lives of Mossad Agents, it follows the early career of Thomas Glaze, a young man totally deluded about his appeal to women, his ability in the field, and his tolerance for drugs and alcohol.

Unsurprisingly, with such a catalogue of denial, he fails miserably as an agent, causing many problems along the way for himself, his colleagues, the women he collects, and a few random members of the public.

As a character study, it works well, as this ‘secret’ agent breaks the first law of fieldwork by getting himself noticed. His inability to understand, let alone accept, his own failings, coupled with his arrogant blame of everyone but himself for his failures doesn’t endear him to the reader. However, he’s skilfully drawn and the story has a compulsive element to it that keeps the reader turning the pages.

This is much more than a thriller. It deals with self-delusion very well. The sheer arrogance and total lack of self-awareness reminds this reader of the failings of most politicians. For utter misconception of his self, Glaze excels.

He is, of course, also completely amoral and unconcerned about the effects of his mistakes, except for rudimentary guilt feelings that are never allowed to mature into real regret or remorse.

There are a few editing glitches that need attention, but I find so many of these nowadays that I’m beginning to believe the standard of book production in general is in decline. That most readers seem unaware of and unconcerned about these frequent errors is a matter of disquiet for a reader who is also a writer.

The story is well paced and carries a number of unexpected twists and turns. If you enjoy straightforward formulaic thrillers, this will be a change and possibly even a challenge for you. But I enjoyed the read, whilst constantly appalled at the personality of the main protagonist.

Laid in Earth, by April Taylor, Reviewed.

laid in earth

Georgie Pattison sings again in this continuation of the amateur sleuth’s adventures. This is a heroine with all the self-doubt, anxieties and fears of any normal woman, but with the courage and sheer bloody-mindedness to find the truth. Justice matters to this lady and she’s willing to take personal risks to find it.

Once again, her reluctant local police detective is embroiled in the action. Hamilton is a woman for whom the term ‘no nonsense’ was originally coined. Get these two women together and, through the flying sparks, their combined experience, knowledge, and sheer determination to get at the truth, strike fear into the heart of the hardest of criminals.

The story is full of twists and turns and the wonderfully convoluted clues keep the reader guessing throughout the book. An added interest here is the information about the world of music and singers, fed naturally into the tale and forming both relief from the tension and material clues to the crimes.

The murders come with shocking clarity, but their motives and solutions are anything but clear; until the very end.

As always, April Taylor draws her characters, even the bit players, with a pen dripping in observational skill and experience. These are people you know, people you’ve met. No stereotypes or two-dimensional folk in these pages.

There’s an added bonus for music lovers who download the eBook: links to performances of the music featuring in the story.

Lovers of Christie and armchair crime will thoroughly enjoy this engaging tale. It says a lot for the quality of the storytelling that I read this whilst editing my own scifi novel, an intense and time-consuming process, and was so engaged by April’s tale I just had to read to the very end. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

Dreaming of Steam, An Anthology from Fantastic Books Publishing, Reviewed.

Dreaming of steam

Subtitled, ‘23 tales of Wolds and rails’, this book of shorts contains a veritable trainload of charming stories. There are histories, romances, memoirs, ghosts, crime, and even some science fiction and fantasy displayed in this box of delights.

Although each story has a different author, there’s unity of approach and style that makes the volume a cohesive whole.

The reader is treated to dark tales, light tales, and mysteries. Many encapsulate the beauties of an area of England I know well; my birthplace, East Yorkshire. More specifically the Yorkshire Wolds, an area of natural beauty less well known than it deserves. Those rolling hills and hidden vales have a friendly face, a welcoming aura.

The railway features strongly here, since this book was compiled as the result of the cooperation of the Yorkshire Wolds Railway and a local publisher, who devised a contest for short stories. The winners, along with invited stories from established authors, and some of the short-listed entries appear here.

All the tales are well written, engaging, and have a certain charm about them. There are stories set around the inception of the railway that inspired this collection. Stories set during the two world wars, contemporary tales, and even futuristic takes on the theme.

If you’ve never had the pleasure of visiting the Yorkshire Wolds, read this and you’ll want to go. If you’re a railway enthusiast, this book is definitely for you. And if you’re a general reader, you’ll find much here to delight and entertain.

A lovely book that’s a joy to read.

Available from major retailers, or direct from the publisher here.

love of the monster, by AM Roselli, Reviewed.

Monster07052017_2

Poetry can be sublime, complex, evocative, tantalising, inspiring, provoking, sensual, thoughtful, engaging and many other things. AM Roselli’s poems manage to fit all these qualities.

I first encountered AM’s remarkable poetry and artwork via her website, anntogether.com, to which I was directed by another friend online. I was engaged at once. This is a woman with real heart who is modest about her accomplishments with paint, pencil and pen. Her mastery of poetic form sits so provocatively alongside her wonderful illustrations.

There is passion here, mischief, sorrow, eroticism, a quest for answers and an honest portrayal of emotions many would quail to express in public. Her use of language leaves me breathless. As a writer myself, I feel humbled by her grasp of the possibilities words can realise.

This volume of illustrated poems is a beautiful piece of work. It’s a book I’ll open frequently to enjoy again the worlds imagined and described by this talented writer and artist.

Anyone who loves words, anyone fascinated by the art of an unusual mind, anyone with empathy for the imagination well explored will find much to enjoy in these pages.

The Polygamist, by William Irvine, Reviewed.

Polygamist

A very human story of one man’s relentless search for a way of life that will suit his view of what a man’s life should be. Culture, religion, philosophy and morality all impact on the story, which has a Muslim protagonist, Omar, living in India, where his beliefs are in the minority.

There are lessons here for the non-Muslim, explanations of the peculiar (to most Western minds) attitude to women, and insights into the equally odd (again to most Western minds) approach to marriage.

Reading this book as an Englishman, raised in the Christian tradition, which I long ago rejected, I sometimes struggled to form empathy with the protagonist’s spiritual and practical conundrums resulting from his choice of lifestyle.

Making a deliberate decision to marry a number of women, more or less simultaneously, as an antidote to his previous unsatisfactory sexually promiscuous lifestyle, places him in situations he’s failed to expect.

The story is well told, with narrative attempts to explain the reasons why this man does what he does. In the process, the reader is informed about the values and priorities ruling the Islamic way of being. It’s alien to the Christian mind and I was conscious throughout of filtering events and attitudes through a personal history of both early church teaching and a current agnostic standpoint. As a result, I was rarely sympathetic to issues that caused Omar such soul-searching. To me, the answers were relatively straightforward. But I understand my approach to the ethics and morality of his lifestyle choice are entirely different. I tried, therefore to enter the mind-set of the protagonist. It made reading the book a slightly schizophrenic experience.

The character of Omar, as well as those of the women and other men he mingles with, is fully developed. Here is a man with a very specific view of the world and his place in it. That he’s from a wealthy Saudi Arabian family overlays the narrative with the inevitable selfishness displayed by such easily acquired riches. But it also adds a layer of the ‘exotic’ to the character.

For many people, he could so easily have been portrayed as a bad man with a poor moral sense attempting to kid himself he was simply living according to his culture and upbringing. But the author wraps the personality in layers of awareness and speculation that render him a much more interesting and, to some extent, even admirable man.

He’s determined to live his life in accordance with his own honest assessment of his sexuality and inability to commit to a single relationship for any length of time. His solution makes some sense within the context of his background and cultural heritage.

The women in his life are drawn with equal depth and concern for their humanity. Although he often attempts to manipulate them to his own ends, they are strong enough to reverse this trend and control him in ways he least expects.

There are a number of events outside the main topic of polygamous marriage that take Omar into situations the author has devised to demonstrate various social woes of the world. These fit well into the story and form a sort of illuminated parallel existence that’s both separate from and inevitably associated with his lifestyle choice.

Interestingly, although there are, almost inevitably since this is a book about the sexuality of a man with a big appetite for amorous encounters with women, detailed explanations of his physical engagement with his various partners, I found nothing erotic here. That may, of course, say more about me than about the nature of the depiction, who knows?

I enjoyed the philosophical debates, the short passages of cultural education, the glimpses into lives of people I’m unlikely to ever encounter in my own life, and the pictures the author paints of the various locations described in the book.

For me, the fact that Omar is from a wealthy background reduced my ability to take his problems as seriously as I might’ve had he had more of a struggle with everyday living. But, that aspect aside, I found the immersion into an entirely new culture in a land I’ve never visited to be instructive and informative.

This is a complex book filled with engaging characters, set in locations of real interest. The story, unfolding via many challenges, varies its pace to suit the action.

All in all, I found this an engaging tale that informed me without in any way altering my attitude to certain aspects of the issues depicted. In fact, in many instances it confirmed what were previously no more than suspicions about Muslim attitudes and priorities. Fortunately, for an agnostic, the religious aspect was heavily overlain with the cultural background, so I never felt I was being preached to. An enjoyable tale, which entertained whilst it informed and educated.

Forces of Nature, by Professor Brian Cox, Reviewed.

forces of nature

This surprising book exudes the author’s enduring sense of wonder and delight at the natural world. Such qualities, when demonstrated by a leading academic, who is also a well-loved and respected TV presenter, can motivate and inspire. I hope many non-scientists read this book.

Not an ‘easy’ read, it demands attention and concentration. But it does explain, where possible in layman’s terms, the fundamental forces that control how things are made in this extraordinary universe we occupy. Acknowledging the roles of early pioneers, and explaining the history of discovery, Professor Cox builds pictures of the way brilliant minds have come to understand the way things work in nature.

If I have a negative comment, it’s only that some early equations in the book would benefit from a few more labels to identify the quantities and qualities described. As the book progresses, however, these very issues, that I imagined were an assumption about readers’ mathematical skills and knowledge, are made clearer: the later formulae are better labelled. For someone like me, with all the mathematical aptitude of an artichoke, some of the workings might just as well have been written in Klingon. But that’s my problem, not the book’s.

It’s refreshing to find a scientist, a popular one at that, so willing to explain at length that science is not a fixed or exact thing. Its methods, however, are subject to peer scrutiny and its theorems require proofs to reach that status. Science is an area of endeavour where simple speculation coupled with a belief system is no substitute for factual information and a serious attempt to discover the realities. It’s refreshing to find this mind-set in a scientist of Professor Cox’s stature, since there are, unfortunately, scientists who treat their discipline in the same cavalier way that most religious authorities treat their beliefs: as if somehow the very fact that they believe their myths should render them beyond question.

I read this book as background research for a science fiction novel I’m writing. I’m very pleased I did! It’s caused me to reconsider certain elements of the future I’m portraying and prevented me appearing more foolish than I might otherwise seem: I’ve discovered that certain ‘facts’ in some fields are not quite what some proponents have declared them to be.

This is a book about the forces of nature. Four of them that form the basic ‘building blocks’ of how the universe, and everything in it, is structured. It’s a truly fascinating read, peppered with amusing comments and presented in a very readable manner. What could so easily have been a dry textbook, is actually an entertaining and informative piece of accessible writing. I wish I’d had teachers with Professor Cox’s ability to explain things in an engaging and inspiring fashion; my school education would have taken an entirely different and more useful route!

Readers with little scientific background may find some of the explanations difficult to comprehend, and those, like me, with poor maths, may have problems understanding some of the proofs. But the Professor makes allowances for these holes in our education and finds ways to make clear what might otherwise be obscure. It’s an intriguing and inspiring read and, having thoroughly enjoyed it, I fully recommend the book.

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A bit of additional info for readers here on the blog. The notes about maths stem from the fact that I left school at 16 having failed my maths ‘O’ level GCE. This was partly due to my deeply sarcastic and self-serving maths teacher, but mostly because I was in deep grief over the death of my mother just 2 days after my 16th birthday and only days before the exam. I re-took maths ‘O’ level the following year, whilst training with the RAF, and passed it. But my maths has never been up to the standard needed for this book. So, don’t let your lack of maths stop you reading the book. It’s a brilliant piece of work.

Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari, Reviewed.

Homo Deus

What a tremendous book this is. Subtitled, ‘A Brief History of Tomorrow’, this follow-up to ‘Sapiens’ confirms the author’s mastery of deep research combined with an intelligence that permits him to see the world as a whole.

I selected this book to read now as I’m at the initial editing stage of a science fiction novel and the blurb suggested it might help me consider my imagined future in a broader way. It has done that. And how.

Harari displays incredible insight in his analysis of the world we inhabit. His knowledge of science, history, religion and much else brings the reader a comprehensive, and alarming, picture of the state of humanity now and the potential future that lays before us. He manages to combine down-to-earth common sense with a deep understanding of the most abstruse theories surrounding so many areas of human activity and thinking.

The book is divided into three sections, preceded by a longish, but eminently readable, introduction to the New Human Agenda. Part two looks at Meaning from a human perspective. Part three looks at Control and who holds the power, who might hold it in the future. Not a book to skim read or even cherry pick, this is a volume that requires your concentration throughout. Dealing, as it does, with complex issues and themes that may be new to some readers, it nevertheless describes these in plain language that everyone should understand. I have learned a lot about the world in which I live whilst perusing these pages.

The future, a time I constantly consider in my life and in my writing of fiction, is an unknown land. What Harari does here is to give that strange and alien destination potential shape and form. And I admit that what he reveals is not a world I would wish to inhabit. Having said that, his vision is, as he so eloquently explains, not a prophesy. It is, as all such endeavours must be, a series of speculations based on current knowledge interpolated and made subject to imagination to reach a possible conclusion.

This is a book that’s important. This is a book that’s vital. This is a book all people should read. A warning about what may happen to humanity if we fail to act to prevent the possible future. Our children deserve our attention to what might be. If we fail them in this, we may fail the future of humanity.