Category Archives: Review

The Bletchley Girls

The Bletchley Girlsby Tessa Dunlop

Bletchley Park’s role during the second world war has been well documented in recent years. This once highly secret hub of the Allies’ intelligence gathering activities has been the subject of numerous books, films and TV programmes, But it is fair to say that by and large, the central characters in these tales have been the big hitters such as Alan Turing whose genius paved the way for the computer revolution. 

This book is a little different. IN The Bletchley Girls, journalist Tessa Dunlop looks not at the code breakers themselves – although they do get a mention – but instead focuses on some of the girls who found themselves, for one reason or another, essential components in the Park’s code-breaking activities. 

Talking candidly about their experiences both before and during the war, the fifteen women whose tales are told here give very different accounts of Bletchley and their roles there. For some, it was an exciting adventure, their first time away from home. For others, it was something a little less glamorous, a period that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. But for all of them it was a time that helped to shape them and whether their memories are fond or otherwise, they can at least be assured that the work that they did at Bletchley Park really did matter, even if they could not see this at the time.

The work at Bletchley Park was intensely secretive and compartmentalised. Staff were forbidden to speak to anyone, including those who worked in other sections (or huts) about the work they did. And whilst all were aware that what they were doing was vital to the war effort, for most it was tedious and repetitive, with no idea of how their labours contributed to anything else. Some of these lively and interesting nonagenarians have never spoken to anyone about their experiences. The need for secrecy was made only too clear to all of the Park’s staff and the consequences for breaching it very severe.

The Bletchley Girls shows a very different side of life, not only for those women working for Bletchley but for women in general. There is no agenda to the telling of these stories but focusing as it does on the role played by these amazing women, it does highlight the prejudice and condescending attitude they all faced from the male establishment.

Tessa Dunlop has captured the highs and lows of these young girls who were, until recently, the often overlooked but essential part of the system that broke the enemy codes. Her book paints a warts-and-all picture of life, not only at the Park itself but also at its outlying stations and offices throughout the UK. The stories put a human face on the most secret of British establishments. Her easy style is well-suited to the subject and she manages to get the best out of her sometimes reluctant interviewees.

The conversational style of the book makes it very easy to read and the open and honest observation of the “girls” themselves a real eye-opener. 

Right on Time

by Pauline McLynn

Right On TimeBack for her third adventure, Dublin’s most unconventional private detective, Leo Street and her eccentric team. Taking on a simple missing person case, Leo soon finds herself staring at the dark underbelly of Dublin’s less salubrious side.

Full of the usual wit and charm I have come to expect from Paulin McLynn, there is also a darker side of the story, embracing the seedy world of addiction and prostitution. Alongside this, Leo is facing some difficult decisions in her private life. But as with her previous outings, the lines between home and work become very blurred. There is a distinctly Irish charm about McLynn’s writing, even when her hero finds herself face to face with some of the city’s seedier characters. I witty aside or slapstick moment is never far away.

The reader is reminded ther9ught the book that every city has its dark side, hidden away from tourists and locals alike. Once again Pauline McLynn has produced a book that combines good plot, wonderful characters and a natural and subtle wit. I really do enjoy journeying into the worlds that she creates.

Right on Time in an uncomplicated read, but one that does challenge preconceptions about Dubin and its culture. A very enjoyable book.

First Frost

by James Henry

First FrostR D Wingfield’s loveable detective DI “Jack” Frost has long been a favourite of mine, both the books and their TV adaptation. The irascible, bumbling and totally politically incorrect detective’s original appearances are a great example of how this kind of stories should be. For me, Frost’s irreverent ways, his disinclination for completing paperwork and his constant battles with authority present a character I can relate to. In this, the first prequel written by the team of James Gurbutt and Henry Sutton, we are transported back to 1981. Frost is a Detective Sergeant and already has a reputation as a good detective, even if his ways are sometimes unorthodox and his matter makes him difficult to work with. Superintendent Mullet has recently arrived at the Denton station and is determined to stamp his authority on the place. For him, Frost epitomises all that is worst about the place.

Keeping with the format that made Wingfield’s original series so popular and successful, in First Frost, DS Frost has to deal with several unrelated crimes, including terrorists, murder, bank robberies and a missing young girl. Trying to keep track of all the separate cases, whilst covering for absent inspectors and missing paperwork, Frost and Mullet clash from the very start.

The interweaving plots ensure the pace is consistent and at times as messy as the belligerent detective trying to unravel it all. The character of Frost os maintained throughout and this peek into his pre-Inspector days is a very clever way for the two writers to resurrect the grumpy old so-and-so.

I really enjoyed the story, the characters and the uncompromising way Gurbutt and Sutton kept faith with R D Wingfield’s creation. First Frost is an excellent novel in its own right, but as part of the Frost series, it is indistinguishable from the originals. A great piece of fiction very well written. 

The Man in the High Castle

The Man In The High Castleby Philip K Dick

Having seen and enjoyed Amazon’s adaptation I felt I really ought to read the book it was based on. The only reason I have left it so long was that I am not exactly a fan of Philip K Dick’s work. I have read several of his works before and found them somewhat difficult to get into. I find his style sits uncomfortably with me and the plots a little lacking in substance. This may be down to poor selection on my behalf, but I can only comment on what I have read. 

The Man in the High Castle is not the first of Dick’s novels to be adapted for the screen. In fact, these adaptations have resulted in some of the most popular Sci-Fi movies of all time, so he must be doing something right.

For me, The Man In The High Castle was a little disappointing. In many ways, it was what I expected in terms of style and plot, but when compared against the TV series, it came a very poor second. All the elements are there, as are the characters, but for me, the big difference between the two, and the reason I prefer the series to the book, is the action or lack of it. The idea behind the book is a whopper – the Allies lost the Second World War and now America is split between Germany and Japan. There is a finely balanced détente between these two new superpowers that is treated by political upheavals within the Reich and the publication of a novel describing a very different world in which the German and Japanese axis lost. 

I have seen and read a number of “What if…” style books over the years and I have to say that Dick’s paints one of the most believable pictures of an alternative post-war history. The Man In The High Castle has a great plot and does a wonderful job of presenting some interesting ideas, but for me, there is a lack of depth to both the characters and the plot. 

I would still recommend the book to anyone who has seen the TV series. It contains a lot more information about the world beyond the American states and some background to the political situation that is well worth knowing. For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the book offers an interesting insight into what might have been. 

 

The Keeper of Lost Things

The Keeper of Lost Thingsby Ruth Hagen

Ruth Hagen’s stunning debut novel is one of those books that really gets inside your head and your soul. It is a story of hope, of opportunities and self-discovery. But it is also a book about death and loss. The only certainty about life is that it has a sell by date, the only control we have is how we live the bits in-between and how we approach the inevitable end.

There is a thread of grief that runs throughout the book as the main characters each learn in their own ways how to come to terms with loss and regret. And although loss is at the heart of each character’s tale, there is also a great deal of love and hope as well. If I make the book sound in any way morbid that is not my intention. It is charmingly uplifting and full of optimism and joy. It is this conflict within the narrative I found particularly compelling.

In taking up a position as assistant to reclusive writer Anthony Peardew, Laura Darby hope to find some purpose and direction in her life. But Peardew is not your average writer or employer. His life is dominated by the tragedy of losing the love of his life on the very morning of their wedding. Since then he has spent his life collecting lost items and attempting to reunite them with their owners, including a biscuit tin containing what looks like cremated remains.

Running parallel to Anthony and Laura’s tale is the story of Eunice and Bomber. Theirs is a story that began back in 1974. Theirs is a story of unrequited love and mutual comfort. The worlds of Eunice, Bomber, Anthony and Laura are woven together by a single thread that will eventually bring the two stories together in an ending that is both moving and oddly tragic.

I read an interview recently with Ruth Hagen I which the book was described as “up-lit”. Whilst I have never heard the phrase before, I can guess what it means and suppose that it actually quite apt, although I am not sure that any label will fit this well constructed and beautifully written story.

The Keeper of Lost Things is a wonderfully uplifting book. I loved the characters and their stories and look forward to reading more from this very promising new writer.

Red Country (First Law World #6)

Red Countryby Joe Abercrombie

Unlike a lot of fantasy fiction, Red Country is not about the struggles for power or a race against time and prophesy. It is about one young woman’s quest to rescue her young brother and sister from unknown kidnappers and to avenge the death of her father. It is a quest that takes young Shy South on a voyage of self-discovery and enlightenment. It is also a tale of redemption and forgiveness as Shy and her companion, Lamb, face enemies old and new. Both have pasts they have tried to forget, but events will conspire to bring those pasts very much to the fore.

I have to say that I felt the story takes more than a little inspiration from the American old west. On several occasions, I found myself reminded of that wonderful film “Paint Your Wagon” with its wagon train, mud and lost souls seeking their fortunes in the hills.

Although it is the thread that holds the book together, Shy’s personal quest isn’t the only story being told here. There are warring factions, but it is not the great powers themselves who cross Shy and Lamb’s paths, but others like the inept Temple whose life is similarly torn apart by events beyond their control.

The big advantage for fantasy writers is they are not constrained by facts or history. There can be no anachronisms and factual inaccuracies, just a blank canvas their stories can unfold. And Joe Abercrombie makes very good use of this freedom in all his books. But unlike most of his other works, Red Country is more a story of relationships, conflicting loyalties and personal discovery. There are enough scenes of blood and gore to keep everyone happy, but it is the unfolding personal stories that make this such a good book for me.

Fans of fantasy fiction will no doubt be already aware of Abercrombie’s work. But whether already a fan or not, Red Country is a book well worth the read. The well-constructed characters and their interweaving storylines make for a dramatic tale. Shy’s grim determination to recover her lost siblings is a compelling vehicle for Abercrombie to investigate the things that drive us all. Red Country is a damned good read.

The Well of Lost Plots

The Well of Lost Plotsby Jasper Fforde

Thursday Next is back and in this, the third instalment of her most unlikely adventures, our intrepid detective finds herself not only reading books but becoming a part of them. Taking refuge in the Well of Lost Plots, Thursday needs to rest and come to terms with both her pregnancy and the eradication of her husband …what’s his name… but she has barely unpacked her bags when life in the unpublished “Caversham Heights” begin to take a decidedly strange turn. 

Actually, the plot for this trip into Fforde’s parallel universe matters little. It is the storytelling itself that makes these books so fascinating and funny. Any attempt by me to distil the essence of the book into a simple paragraph or two would confuse anyone who hasn’t read either of the previous books. And anyone who has read Thursday’s first two books will understand my reticence. 

Humour comes in many forms and is probably the most subjective of the literary genres. Whilst some writers prefer to litter their work with quick one-liners, others, like Fforde, turn words inside out and cast doubt on their very meaning. Fforde manages to use words to paint a very vivid picture of the topsy-turvy world he has created for us. 

For anyone new to Jasper Fforde’s particular universe, be warned: nothing is quite as it seems and to trying to apply any kind of logic to the events, characters or creatures that inhabit the books is akin to knitting fog in a pair of boxing gloves. With the lights out during a particularly wild storm. Best not try it. Just sit back, leave the real world behind and be prepared to be entertained. 

But, lunacy aside, Jasper Fforde is a good writer who uses humour and lunacy to tell a damned good tale. For anyone who, like me, enjoyed the works of Sharpe and Pratchett, then the Thursday Next series is a must. 

And, just in case you were wondering, the Well of Lost Plots is the place where all fiction is created. 

Sweet Caress

Sweet Caressby William Boyd

Sweet Caress is the memoir of a fictional photographer, Amory Clay. In a life that spans some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, from the decadence of 1920s Berlin to the horrors of the Vietnam War. And in between, her struggles with the various men in her life, all of whom inevitably let her down.

But no matter how strong-willed and determined she may be, carving a career in a male-dominated society is a challenge for any woman and in Amory Clay, William Boyd has created a character who has all the strength needed to succeed. Her character comes across as a homage to all those incredibly strong women who have helped to shape our modern society.

At one point I forgot that I was reading a work of fiction and actually started to believe that this wonderful woman had actually existed. And I suppose in a way she did. Maybe not as an individual, but in the shape of the many women whose lives provided the inspiration for the character.

Boyd is a great writer who knows how to reel the reader in and keep them hooked. Unfolding as it does over a long lifetime, Sweet Caress may lack the pace of books like “Ordinary Thunderstorms”, but it more than makes up for in depth and character development. There is also the selection of old photographs interspersed throughout the book that help to give a feeling of authenticity to the tale. Each image provides a hook on which Boyd rather skilfully hangs elements of the photographer’s tale.

Sweet Caress is a great book from one of the country’s most respected contemporary novelist. I found it compelling and at times quite moving. It may not be a classic, but it is certainly one that deserves recognition for both its content and style.

The One Plus One

One Plus Oneby Jojo Moyes

Having previously read several Jojo Moyes books I was pretty sure what to expect – captivating characters, a great plot and quality writing. And that is exactly what I got. The plot itself is typical rom-com fodder, but the important thing is the way it is told. Jojo Moyes has the ability to make her characters come to life on the page. 

We all know how hard it can be to recover when life when knocks us down, and how difficult it can be to retain our optimism when you feel that universe is conspiring against us. But that eternal optimism despite everything life has thrown at her is what makes the leading lady, Jess Thomas, such an endearing character. Despite having to hold down two jobs to keep her and her two children fed and watered, she remains confident that things will get better. 

On the other hand, Ed Nichols has it all: the perfect job, a flat in London, a holiday home by the sea, his own company and, on the face of it, a bright future.

But all is not as it seems, and that is where the story begins. 

The One Plus One is a modern love story with just a hint of the Romeo and Juliet about it. But like all good books, there is a lot more going on underneath the surface. Jess’s optimism is tested to its limits by the circumstances of a life she no longer seems to have any control over. But it is that very “silver lining” approach that turns Ed’s life around. As he faces losing everything he has ever worked for, seeing at first hand Jess’s determination to do the best for her children is something of a revelation. He begins to realise that for one he has the opportunity to do some real good, to do something that will improve the life of someone else.

It doesn’t hurt that on their journey – physical and metaphorical – they find themselves growing ever closer.

For me, Jojo Moyes is one of those writers that can turn a seemingly simple tale into something quite deep and inspiring. Her characters are easily identifiable and I can’t help feeling some empathy towards them and their plights. Whilst tragedy is always at the heart of a good novel, particularly a love story like this one, humour is also a key element, and in The One Plus One Jojo Moyes gets the balance just right. It is witty, absorbing and a joy to read. 

 

 

 

The Other Hand

The Other Handby Chris Cleave

According to the blurb on the back of this book, the story is too special for them to say anything about what happens. They even implore the reader not to tell anyone once they have read it. All we are told is that it is the story of two women whose lives “collide” where there is a terrible choice to be made. Then they meet again two years later. And that’s it! There is even a letter inside from the editor saying all kinds of wonderful things about the story.

But does it live up to these lofty expectations?

This is not just the story of the two women whose tales are being told. It is the story of a clash of cultures, of hope, desperation, despair and love. On the face of it, Sarah and Little Bee’s live’s are about as different as you can imagine, but underneath the surface, they are not too dissimilar. 

In my experience, over-hyped books tend to be disappointing. However, in The Other Hand, Chris Cleave has written the kind of story that is bound to make everyone that reads it stop and think about the absurdity and the cruelty of the world we live in. Both of the women here make sacrifices that will cost them dearly, but they do so without hesitation. 

I found it to be very moving, told in two distinctly different voices that Cleave maintains throughout. Whilst I wouldn’t say the book has changed my life or perspective, it was as enlightening as it was entertaining. 

The Other Hand is not an easy read, but it is worth the effort.