Book Review: ‘Murder in Keswick – A Sherlock Holmes Mystery’ by William Todd

Murder in Keswick: A Sherlock Holmes Mystery by William Todd

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Arriving in Keswick for a well-earned rest from sleuthing in the grimy metropolis, Holmes and Watson find the town abuzz with rumours surrounding the murder of a local landlord – much to Watson’s consternation and Holmes’ quiet delight.

The puzzles come thick and fast: Why that particularly effortful means of murder? What about the well-worn left sleeve? And how could such a fate befall a fellow who seemed not to have an enemy in the world?

The characters and prose – with the possible exception of Watson’s too-fulsome admiration of Holmes’ deductive abilities – are true to the original ‘Adventures’, and the landscape and interiors realistically and sympathetically portrayed. Some reviewers have mentioned Americanisms creeping in but a quick bolt down an etymology rabbit-hole reveals it’s perfectly possible that ‘server’ (in a restaurant) and even the dreadful ‘gotten’ were indeed used as words by real people in the nineteenth century when our two languages were less diverged.

The plot and clues of this short novel are well put together such that I, at least, kicked myself (metaphorically!) when ‘all was revealed’ at the end in the classic style.

A touching author’s note completes the read: the author is American, and thanks the people of the online community who have helped him achieve such a true-to-life portrait of the Lake District (disclaimer: I admit I take the place for granted a bit too much – my parents live there!)

The final mystery is – how did this particular book come to be where I found it – namely, abandoned wedged in some railings in York? Somebody either missed a trick or decided to pass-on a good read!




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Book Review: ‘Roadside Attractions’ by Eric Lahti

Roadside Attractions by Eric Lahti

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The story opens with what, under normal circumstances, would be a tragic death – but the victim’s attitude is refreshingly different. Having spent her brief adult life in the margins of Hollywood – as repeated victim of typical Hollywood men, and being driven to drugs as a consequence – she finds in death the blessed release of no longer having to deal with the burdensome liability of a tangible female body.

The cynicism is darkly hilarious. But the characters are still (nearly) all ones you would root for. Even when you find out, at the mid-point, what the most enigmatic one has in mind, you still feel a brief temptation to take their side after all the torment they’ve been put through…

The backdrop, as the two unlikely main protagonists first ply their trade chasing troublesome ghosts from people’s houses and then become drawn ever deeper into an all-encompassing supernatural conflict between evil and, er, even more evil, is reminiscent of ‘American Gods’. But with the difference that here we have realistic (even though mainly supernatural) relatable characters, each with something to fight for, in a well-woven plot. I mean, these characters are so true-to-life that you even catch one of the women grumbling about the inadequate size of jeans pockets.

If you like an all-American road trip with a difference, including atmospheric landscape, crackling magic, and some long-drawn-out and marvellously gruesome fight scenes (immortal characters can sustain so many more injuries than the rest of us) then this is the read for you.



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Book Review: ‘The Martian Diaries Volume 1 – The day of the Martians’ by H.E. Wilburson

The Day of the Martians by H.E. Wilburson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

‘The Martian Diaries’ books draw upon the rich seam of Victorian science fiction tradition to address the question: After the ending of the original ‘The War of the Worlds’ by H.G. Wells (and I’m trying to avoid spoilers here, for those of you who’ve not yet read it), what happened next?

‘The Martian Diaries Volume 1 – The Day of the Martians’ opens with a new Martian invasion looming, with the invaders now wise to the cause of their setback twenty or so (earth) years previously.

The author’s introduction to the novella explains the sparseness of scenes is deliberate: the work is also available as an audiobook, and as such is geared for audio rendition, with the words accompanied with sound effects and music to immerse the reader in the setting, and lend atmosphere.

However the prose, written In journal form by the main character, to me lacks neither, freeing the reader to be swept along in the action. There is no need to know what the interiors look like – with the exception of an abandoned tea-room, and pair of blue curtains.

The battle scenes are vivid, the reminiscences poignant and the reflections of H.G. Wells’ work – such as the calm felt when hearing a passing train – bring a wry smile. There is, in short, atmosphere a-plenty.

The style is authentic to the year – 1913 – with that slightly stuffy but nevertheless descriptive wording of the turn of last century. The characters are true to the originals, with one gratifying bit of character growth: Laura, the journalist’s wife, is something of what today would be called an environmentalist, and one of her scientific insights as a result is crucial to the plot. The allusions, with the invasion imminent, to the war that we but not the characters here know would break out the following year, bring a heightened sense of ominousness for the reader.

We even have a nod to H.G. Wells’ philosophy. Leaving aside the outcome of the battle, the reader is asked to wonder, regarding the nature of the weapon used on the Martian invaders: can you trust humans with a thing of such power?



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Book Review: ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ by Atul Gawande

The Checklist Manifesto How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


What if you heard, one day, of a simple and straightforward ‘secret’ that could halve your chances of complications after surgery, dramatically improve air travel safety even if disaster struck, and after all that make sure your order in a swanky restaurant was brought faultlessly to your table?

You’d want to be in on it, wouldn’t you?

Until, perhaps, you found out the nature of this ‘secret’.

It is no more nor less than a straightforward checklist: a written-down list of essential steps in any process – steps which may, in the heat of emergency or the lethargy of long hours, otherwise be inadvertently skipped.

Simple, right?

Er – no. Things can go horribly wrong – and in this case they did!

Who begins the process of reeling-off the items to be checked? How, if they’re not the Boss, do they command the attention of everybody present? And what effect does all this have upon the said Boss’s authority? The checklist in the workplace, we discover, has a social element as well as the obvious physical one.

In his quest for the perfect, universal checklist for surgical operations, Gawande and his team from the World Health Organisation draw from the expertise of everyone from nurses in rural Tanzanian hospitals struggling with unreliable supplies of the very basics, to Chesley Sullenberger.

But doesn’t the sheer simplicity and mundanity – banality even – of a checklist reduce every job to a mechanical routine? And make of every working person, no matter how knowledgeable or prestigious, a mindless drone? This was the wall Atul Gawande and his researchers came up against, when putting their findings to surgeons and doctors all over the world. How they overcame this, and achieved the results they did, is the best and most fascinating part of the tale.

The Checklist Manifesto is, above all, a story of human progress. It is sympathetically and enthusiastically told – parts of it read like a novel of suspense, complete with exotic locations and personality clashes. Though written ten years ago now, it has something to say to all of us.

Put it on your checklist of ‘things to read’!




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Book Review: ‘2084 – The End of Days’ by Derek Beaugarde

2084 The End of Days by Derek Beaugarde

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


An All-American farm-boy is steering a spaceship home to Earth from Mars while daydreaming about his wife – specifically, sex with his wife. As openings to sci-fi novels go, that’s about as clichéd as you can get, guys – but after this, it begins to get interesting.

We meet two hung-over Scotsmen (complete with cans of Irn-Bru) sitting on the computer-hack of the century, their Israeli victim; hot-shot journalist Jill and her errant ‘boyfriend’ Khan; East-coast high-flying geneticist Marcie (and her terrible mistake); Lex the NASA control operative with an alcohol problem, his boss, and a Yorkshireman who wishes he wasn’t in Scotland.

All this before the pivot-point where we get to find out what the comet will do…

The comet – named after the unfortunate operative whose computer was hacked – is due to strike in 2084, three years from the opening scenes. The dreadful truth is revealed – to the reader and a small group of the main characters (“What are we going to need the money for now, anyway?”), right at the mid-point of the action.

Scenes are expertly interwoven as the tension rises: who will break to the unsuspecting billions of planet Earth the secret of what will happen? Can it be avoided? And how will everyone react once the cat’s out of the bag?

I particularly love the well-drawn characters with their complicated lives and motivations – the women’s more so than the men’s, just like in our times! – and the way each scene reveals a new twist even though, as in a classic Greek tragedy, you know what’s going to happen in the end.

The psychological effect upon the few people ‘in the know’ is realistically portrayed. There are touching scenes reminiscent of Neville Chute’s ‘On the Beach’.

There are some clever name-choices, too: An American President with middle name Spengler, and in a Biblical twist two police officers called Adams and Evans.

Strange to say, I found this an optimistic read, but to reveal why would spoil it for you. I highly recommend it to those who like the classic sci-fi/space canon (Azimov, etc) but with a wider, and deeper, variety of characters caught up in the action – and a clever take on our current times.

And our All-American farm-boy? He’s still steering his spaceship home, dreaming the same dream – but this time, it matters.





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Book Review: ‘Darker Than Blue – This Mortal Coil’ by Lawrence G. Taylor

Darker than Blue – This Mortal Coil by Lawrence G. Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve given this story 4 stars out of 5 but fully appreciate that it’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. For a start, anyone who subscribes to the idea that ‘show, don’t tell’ makes for a better read needs to run screaming for the exits right now.

The story tells, in almost the same way that the Bible does. Reading it is like reading a parable or a myth, but one recounted by a fascinating unreliable witness – a reflection of the injured mental state of the main character, Boy Blue.

The parallels to our troubled times as looked at from Black people’s point of view are so obvious it’s almost painful. Some people may find this aspect a little laboured, but for others it may be just what’s needed.

The deliberately-imperfect English proves a poignant reflection of the fractured nature of Boy Blue’s thought processes as he struggles to come to terms with the injustice of it all. Like some of the writing of James Joyce it’s not supposed to make sense, at least not in the conventional meaning of the phrase. The author, after all, describes it as an experimental work.

In the turn of events, I’m reminded of elements from ‘The Shock Doctrine’, then ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ and to a certain extent ‘A Handmaid’s Tale.’

The aspect that appealed to me the most? We are left to ponder the eventual fate of the island. It’s a Mystery – almost like the entire tale.




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Book review: ‘The Rescue – A Ghost Assassin Affair’ by John J. Higgins

The Rescue A Ghost Assassin Affair by John J. Higgins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


‘The Rescue’ has a great opener: for one scene at least, we are rooting for Chet even though he’s an assassin/hired gun. We also get an intriguing glimpse of his origins, and the history of the organisation he works for.

But we get ALL THE CLICHES – ‘instant’ romantic interest for the hero, ‘sacrificed’ past love as his motivation, and Russian villains (one of whom even uses the title ‘Comrade’). As if that’s not enough, all the women are stunning-looking – and described in great detail, unlike the men (we’re only at page 16 when we get the first ‘her breasts’). The main character’s love interest (well, bed interest) is a Romance author: anyone who writes – or reads – Romance knows that (wink) we women look, too. Give us something to look at! And he’s blond, not blonde: the latter is a descriptor for a female.

Staying on that subject, the ‘homeless guy’s musings about Sophie in the closing scenes, considering what we learn about him in the end, make no logical sense.

The book’s best feature is the interweaving of scenes, alternating the action which creates and maintains tension, with the main character’s ingenious use of weapons, and resourcefulness in tight corners making us want to root for him because he’s on his own in this, and the underdog.

What ruins it is everything that happens in between: the dialogue is flat, with all the characters – even though they range in background from an engineering professor through a ‘homeless bum’ to a bunch of hired guns, all speaking with pretty-much the same ‘voice’. This includes characters who, the situation tells us, are speaking in languages other than English. At the very least couldn’t some phrases or idioms from Russian or Polish have been dropped in, to add realism and character? The last Russian hired gun saying ‘I am it’ is particularly stiff: this isn’t a phrase in Russian.

In addition, we get very little in the way of proper reactions by any of the characters to their sudden changes in fortune (I’ll not say more because Spoilers) – just terse phrases like ‘she was relieved’ or ‘Vadim was pleased’. Often their ‘inner dialogue’ over-compensates for this: ‘he did not like the sound of Vadim ‘taking care’ of them. He isn’t kidnapping them. He intends to kill them,’ when that’s already evident from the situation.

This makes the main characters a bit flat; but the villains are positively one-dimensional. The FSB wanting at one point to kill everybody involved; the constant references to ‘the Mob’ or ‘Mob connections’ – nobody with genuine organised crime connections would refer to it that way: if they mentioned it at all it would be ‘associates’ or ‘business,’ and if talking about rivals they’d be ‘hooligans’ or similar.

Vadim is obviously pure evil, but this would work far better if any of the other villains/Russians were brought out as characters – even if this were only one scene of them drinking together, for example.

Their dialogue is riddled with ‘as you know, Bob…’-type exposition. Similarly, the French representative describing the deficiencies of his own country’s project is blatantly unrealistic.

Chet doesn’t seem to understand their language, referring to it as ‘Russian dialect’: an agent who speaks Russian would either name the accent or dialect, e.g. “heavily-accented Russian – Chechen” (or wherever), or just think ‘Russian’.

And considering what he’s supposed to have been taught, and who he’s operating for, his attitude (‘Never sure how drugs affect the Russians: sometimes they become more agreeable … other times they become more belligerent and attack, feeling even less pain.’) towards them as almost sub-human jars somewhat. We’re supposed to like the guy – or at least identify with his aims.

Coupled with this, his mentor’s assessment of the way the world situation would evolve is woefully inadequate – considering the USSR as the only source of villains. Didn’t they consider China? Or the Middle East, the Heroin trade, or indeed their own country’s excesses?

If you like a well-woven plot, with plenty of action, ingenuity and international intrigue, with villains who are just plain evil and resourceful good guys who have the world’s best interest at heart, then this is for you. If, though, you also want believable characters who speak and react like real people, and a tale not riddled with clichés and prejudices, then a 1960s James Bond film probably has more to offer on that score.




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Book Review: The Time Paradox by Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd

The Time Paradox: The New Psychology of Time by Philip G. Zimbardo

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


What is your attitude to Time? Do you let the past, the present, or the future dominate your headspace? And are there any bad – or good – consequences of this?

Philip Zimbardo (yes, that Philip Zimbardo, of Stanford prison laboratory fame) grew up in a Sicilian family, in New York. At the tender age of six, on starting school, he was struck by the contrasting attitudes to time at his home and in the classroom. The Sicilians lived for the pleasures of today – food, friends; cultural experiences, whereas classroom discipline focused on the future – work hard today to be rewarded by mastery of a skill tomorrow.

This, then, is truly a lifetime’s work.

Zimbardo makes no bones about which perspective he personally prefers as the key to a successful, happy life: the Future perspective, that he learned at school. It gives people the motivation to set aside the immediate pleasures, or the maudlin attachment to the past, enabling one to become everything from a successful businessperson to an enthusiastic environmentalist – not to mention a top professor of psychology.

But even the good Professors admit that a Future perspective has its downside: over-work, the neglect of one’s family and social life and the absence of culture and heritage; the shock, on retirement, of a bleak landscape devoid of work and status. They note that many top figures in business privately admit their lives are ‘empty’, and that a very low ‘Past’ perspective can make one feel rootless or even antisocial.

The second section of the book, then, sets out how you can find some balance in your life. This takes the reader through a personality test (The Zimbardo Time Perspective Inventory), to find out where you are, followed by a series of ‘How To’s’ for if you find yourself worryingly short of one of the ‘perspectives’ – Past, Present or Future. Ironically, some of the ‘future’ remedies – those involving money and investment – appear a little dated now, as the book was written during the opening throes of the financial crash of 2008. Similarly, mention is made of the ‘marshmallow test’ (can a five year old resist the temptation of one sweet now if promised two in a few minutes) as a predictor of success in later life, but it has since been found that the ability to resist temptation correlates pretty precisely with one’s parents’ social status.

The part I found most interesting was the application of the Time perspective to common problems in the human condition. Many campaigns against self-destructive behaviour (drug abuse, unprotected sex…) are designed by people with a ‘future’ perspective and will sail ineffectively past those who do not share that mindset – the very people, in fact, who are most in need of the advice. A campaign convincing young people that the act of smoking makes them look stupid or ugly, for example, is going to hit the mark much more effectively than one which says they might get cancer in the future.

My only slight beef with this book is that a number of the early chapters sum-up with paragraphs along the lines of, ‘this book will help you…’ – which I found a bit ‘too American’ for my tastes, and that some of the recommended actions seemed a little simplistic and perhaps didn’t take resource constraints – time as well as money – into account as much as they should.




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Book Review: ‘Science and Secularism’ by Dan Dana

Science and Secularism by Dan Dana

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


‘Science and Secularism’ is a journey, described three times and in three ways.

It starts with a brief life story – how the author got to the beliefs he holds now. Next come the Haiku sets, evoking his wonder at natural phenomena – a wonder which, he argues here, needs no additional thought of a ‘creator’ of any kind.

The final section sets out the most typical argument in favour of atheism: that there is no measurable evidence for a ‘creator’, nor any logical explanation of how such a thing could exist.


The opening section, with its description of the revelations about different religions, about merging into broader and broader ‘families’ of faith, is a nice sequence – representing literally a broadening of the mind.

The logic is sound: with so many religions, which in some places contradict each other but each of whose followers believe is the ‘right’ religion, which one is right? And whichever it is, the others, if they’re different, must have something wrong with them.

It is rather spoiled by an ambiguity in the third paragraph, near the beginning, in which the sentence structure implies that the adults in the culture to which he was born – or possibly adults in most cultures – had no understanding of Science. Also, to be honest, I wondered how one can breach a moat.

By taking the “there’s a huge variety of religions among people, leading to inevitable contradictions and thus the question of which one is correct” line of argument against religion as truth rather than the more traditional “There is no direct evidence of God” line, the author has also indirectly tackled the “yes but there’s no direct measurement of ‘love’ either – only of the effect it has upon people” counter-argument to the latter. After all, unlike with any ‘God’, all human beings are in agreement about what ‘love’ is, and what it does.

So: is Atheism a faith? The argument posed here is that it is not, because with no direct evidence for any god(s), it’s the most reasonable thing to believe.

The haiku sets are in two sections: Secular, and Science.

Among the Secularism Haiku (sets 1 – 10) I most appreciated the second, with its joke about ‘Not collecting foreign stamps’ bordering on the Zen. Does ‘nothing’ – i.e. the lack of things – have an existence all of its own?

The Science Haiku (sets 11 – 27) evoke the ‘sense of wonder’ the non-religious feel, without the need to invoke a ‘creating power’ of which to be in awe. Even after more than half a century of fascination with astronomy and cosmology some of us, myself included, still feel like “a wide-eyed passenger hurtling through spacetime.”

I loved the wry humour of “this haiku’s not infinite – I’ve reached the edge now.”
The penultimate haiku, in praise of water, which exists in a tiny range of temperatures and makes life possible, included a nice metaphor – Mars’ skeleton key – while the final haiku sets out our stark existential choice.

The Haiku sets are followed by the final section, dedicated to debunking Creationism, the angle taken being that Pandeism (the belief that a creator, having created everything, now becomes the things they have created and so is no longer directly detectable). This has in common with the more conventional religions, the question “where did that creator come from?” The hypothesis of non-linear time is an interesting one – that there was literally no time before the act of creation, in much the same way that you can’t travel further north than the North Pole.

My problem with this final section is that it suffers from the same shortcoming as Dawkins’ ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’, namely the desire to invoke in the reader awe of what there is in nature, while at the same time taking meticulous care to avoid any spiritual angle, religious or otherwise. This puts a severe limit on the imagery and metaphor, and neglects the observer/writer’s relationship with the world being described – and all good writing is, in one way or another, about relationships.

For an idea of what’s missing, Rachel Carson’s ‘The Sea Around Us’, for example, while a scientific and factual description of the world of the oceans, maintains a sense of beauty and awe in the reader by endowing the world described with a certain mystery – as if to say, here is what we know, but also here is our place in it; here is what we have in common with it; and finally an implication that there is always more out there that we have yet to understand. None of this can be done, it strikes me, if one adheres too strictly to the ‘material’ outlook at the expense of all else.
The narrative then turns to Supernaturalism – the mystical belief that entities exist beyond empirically observable reality, outside the laws of nature, specifically the Standard Model of particle physics. The coverage of recent advances in cosmology and other sciences is wide-ranging and thought-provoking, but to me, referring to some phenomena as ‘supernatural’ simply begs the question of what lies outside the standard model but is yet to be explained by a better scientific model.

To those who, like me, have not grown up in a religious milieu, and who’ve not had to ‘escape’ from a religious upbringing, this final section seems a bit of a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
However, the Haiku sets and philosophical sections together would make a thoughtful gift for friends who are wrestling with the contradictions between alternative world views – religious and non-religious. Or indeed with the many contradictions between and within religions.




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Book Review: ‘Downtime Shift’ by Robert Holding

Downtime Shift by Robert Holding


My rating: 3 of 5 stars

‘Downtime Shift’ has a great premise: agents of the 29th century are sent back in time – a whole number of turns from ‘Point Time’ round a ‘loop’ of some 800 years to ‘Down Time’ (our own time) – to steer their past events in order to tweak their present-day, perfect civilisation, a civilisation completely overseen by the EYE, a vast and complex AI.

We meet Evelyn in the prologue which alludes to her intense training preparing her to take her place as one of these agents: a ‘Shifty’. It is implied that she was somehow ‘surplus to requirements’ in her pre-training life, but this is never fully explained.

Tension builds slowly as one is led to wonder what the motives of Psychologist Dr Janeen Hellander are: does she not want Evelyn to complete the task assigned her? And if she doesn’t – if she’s a saboteur – will General Tarran McAndre find out?

We get a lot of Evelyn’s inner world – the account of her meditation at the close of chapter 1 is particularly evocative, as are many of the landscape descriptions throughout. The landscape, it turns out, in a way has its own secrets…

What made the story drag a little for me was the lack of much conflict or suspense after that. Everything just seemed to go off too well, with hardly any obstacles or surprises for the two main characters.

There was plenty of psychological to-ing and fro-ing, with different characters ‘squaring up’ to each other for lack of trust, feeling-out for each other’s weaknesses. In many of these encounters the reader is made to hop between the characters’ points of view, which not only makes the narrative hard to follow but also destroys the tension – if you know what both are thinking, you know what the outcome will be – and worse, you are not properly ‘in’ the mind of either.

The dearth of dialogue ‘tags’ or small beats during the long exchanges of conversation made the logic hard to follow at times, and a programme (‘Echo’) is mentioned only once throughout – we never get to find out what it is.

The story, at its heart, is a lively and futuristic exploration of two questions in ethics: the classic ‘trolley problem’ – should you deliberately kill in order to save a greater number of lives? – and the more contemporary question of to what extent we should allow Artificial Intelligence to take over our lives, even if it is for the common good.

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