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Archive for November, 2010

It is nearing the end of the 15th century, and Luis de Santangel is the chancellor to the Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Ysabel.  The Inquisition has made its way to Spain, and many Jewish people are in fear for their lives.  de Santangel is a converso – of Jewish heritage, but converted to Christianity.  He develops an interest in the religion of his ancestors – partly due to an ancient parchment which Cristobal Colon (Christopher Columbus) delivers to him –  and in doing so, puts himself, his family, and friends who share his interest, in great danger.  Tomas de Torquemada, the leader of the Inquisition becomes interested in de Santangel, and will go to any means necessary to capture him.  While de Santangel’s position in the Kings Court may afford him some protection, he is well aware that there is a limit to such protection.

Meanwhile, Judith Migdal is a Jewish lady living in Granada.  Mourning the loss of her brother and his wife, she takes on the role of looking after the wife’s father and her brother’s son.  She determines to carry on the silversmith business which her brother had built up, but soon finds herself navigating a difficult landscape as she sees the persecution of Jews and the dangerous times which they will all be facing.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book.  Initially I thought it might be hard going, but instead it was utterly absorbing and interesting.  There is tremendous detail regarding the Inquisition, the instability of the times and the lives and cultures of people living in Spain at the time – it is clear that the author must have conducted extensive research.  However, the book does not become bogged down with detail – the writing serves to help immerse the reader into the atmosphere in which the story is set, with the sights and sounds almost seeping out of the pages.

The somewhat explicit detailing of the torture and punishment inflicted on the Jewish people leaves little to the imagination, and at times made for uncomfortable reading.

Luis was a very well drawn character.  I felt that throughout the book, the reader really got to know him very well.  He was clearly an intelligent man in a position of privilege, who commanded respect.  However, his life of comfort was not enough to stop him asking questions about the motivations of the Inquisition, and his own family history.  Judith was also a wonderful character.  She was strong and determined, because she had no choice but to be.  I felt that the author really allowed the reader to see into these people’s lives and thoughts.

I really think that there are two stories contained in the book; that of Luis de Santagel and the events which take place and which draw Judith Migdal into his orbit; and that of an unstable period of time when people were scared for their lives, practised their religion in private and were never sure who they could trust.  Both stories are equally enjoyable.  The integration of Christopher Columbus (prior to his most famous voyage) was interesting reading.  Although Columbus does not appear in the book a great deal, he does play an important role.

Overall, this book is highly recommended – fantastically researched, very well written and fascinating.  I would especially recommend it to fans of historical fiction, or anybody with even a passing interest in this period of history.  It certainly inspired me to find out more about the Inquisition, and Luis de Santangel himself.

(I would like to thank the author for sending me this book, and also BCF Reviewers for arranging for me to receive it.  Mitchell James Kaplan’s website can be found here.  BCF Reviews blog can be found here.)

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12 year old Steven Lamb doesn’t have a lot to be happy about.  He, his brother Davey and their mother Lettie, live with Steven’s Nan.  His mother clearly favours Davey, and his nan is haunted by the loss of her own son Billy almost two decades earlier.  Billy was believed to have been a victim of serial killer Arnold Avery, who is now in prison.  Billy’s body was never found, and Steven has spent a huge amount of time digging to try and find it on Exmoor (where oher victims of Avery were buried). 

Steven thinks that if he can just find Billy’s body, his family can obtain closure and may be able to be happy again.  When his digging yields no result, he decides to write to Avery and ask where Billy is buried.  And so begins a terrifying game of cat and mouse…

This book was very gripping and hard to put down.  The narration was pacy, and switched from Steven’s point of view to that of Avery.  The chapters told from Avery’s viewpoint were disturbing, which is only to be expected as he was a paedophile and child murderer.  These parts worked particularly well in casting in creating a dark and sinister atmosphere in which the story took place.

For me, the chapters told from Steven’s point of view worked slightly less well.  I found some of his thought processes to be somewhat unrealistic for a 12 year old boy, and thought that for a child who was clearly very naive in some respects, he seemed to reason things out in a way that I would not have expected.

However, the story held my attention throughout and while I had to suspend my disbelief on occasion, I did find the book extremely readable.  The writing flowed well and drew me in completely.  My favourite parts, and the sections that were most believeable, were the scenes with Steven and his family.  These parts were upseting because they portrayed such a realistic view of a family heading towards meltdown.  Lettie has been let down by men all of her life – her childrens’ father is out of the picture, and her children are used to seeing a succession of ‘uncles’ – and she seems to love her younger son more than she loves Steven.  His nan spends all of her days looking out of the window waiting for the return of a son who is never coming back.  Steven himself is either picked on or completely ignored at school, and his one friend Lewis, takes advantage of him constantly.  It was no surprise to me to read the author’s note where she said that the book was originally going to be about a boy and his family, and the impact which a 20 year old murder had had on them, rather than a psychological thriller involving a serial killer.

Despite the minor niggles, I would certainly recommend the book, although the subject matters means that it might not appeal to everybody.  I will also be looking out for other books by this author.

I would like to thank Transworld Publishers for sending me this book to review.  Transworld Publishers’ website can be found here.)

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1984: 10 year old junior detective Kate Meaney spends her days wandering around Green Oaks Shopping Centre, in Birmingham, looking for suspicious activity.  Living with her disinterested grandmother after the desertion of her mother and the death of her father, Kate finds it hard to make friends and her closest confidante is her toy monkey, Mickey.

2003: Kurt, a security guard at Green Oaks Shopping Centre, who has few friends and suffers with a sleep disorder, is haunted by the image of a little girl with a toy monkey, which he sees on the security camera at the centre, and which invokes memories of young Kate Meaney, who went missing almost 20 years earlier.  Meanwhile, Lisa – a manager at Your Music, in the shopping centre finds a toy monkey stuffed behind a pipe in the centre, and is also reminded of when Kate disappeared.  Gradually, the truth of what happened all those years ago is revealed…

I really liked this book.  I had a particular interest in reading it as the author is local to the area where I live, and I am very familiar with the shopping centre on which the book is partly based. 

The first part of the story centred on Kate Meaney and her life.  All she wants to do is become a detective – and maybe find someone who understands her.  The only friends she has are Teresa – a schoolfriend, who for different reasons to Kate is also something of an outsider, and Adrian – the son of the local newsagent.  Kate feels largely invisible, and certainly it seems as if she is often overlooked by others.

The second part of the book shifted to life at the shopping centre, and in particular for Lisa and Kurt, who don’t know each other, but become friends.  The author used to work at just such a shopping centre, and it shows through in some of the anecdotal stories of awkward or eccentric customers, and the trivial incidents which get blown out of all proportion. There was a lot of humour in this section of the book, but also a lot of tenderness.  Both Lisa and Kurt seem to be drifting through their lives, finding little satisfaction anywhere and having let go of all of their dreams.

I thought the three main characters of Lisa, Kurt and Kate were all very well drawn, and the author seems to have a real talent for getting into the minds of these slightly off-beat characters. 

The writing also flowed beautifully and I found the book hard to put down.  Most of the chapters are short and choppy, which makes it a quick and absorbing read.  I also particularly liked the little thoughts of various anonymous people around the centre, some of which were very funny and some of which were sad or poignant.  One of the things that did jump out at me was how for some people, a huge shopping centre such as the one in this book becomes almost the centre of their lives.  It’s a social meeting place, a way of avoiding boredom, somewhere where people can become anonymous and get lost in the crowds.

The book isn’t perfect – a couple of the things that happened struck me as too unrealistic – but it was a very enjoyable read, and I will certainly be looking out for more work by Catherine O’Flynn.

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I’ve just finished the first season of this riveting crime drama.  The show is set in Toronto in the 1890s, and centres on the character of Detective William Murdoch (played by Yannick Bisson).  Murdoch uses unusual – bit often effective – methods to solve crime, including the lifting of fingerprints (“fingermarks”), surveillance and trace evidence.  His boss, Inspector Thomas Brackenreid (Thomas Craig) often gets exasperated with Murdoch’s methods, being a much more down to earth and straight talking Policeman, but he respects and likes Murdoch and acknowledges that he often achieves good results. George Crabtree (Jonny Harris), an eager young Constable, usually partners Murdoch in his work, and although he is sometimes a little naive, he is often able to provide valuable insight and initiative.  The main cast is completed by Doctor Julia Ogden (Helene Joy) as the forward thinking pathologist, who is often able to provide clues to a mystery.  There is also a frisson of attraction between Murdoch and Ogden; I look forward to seeing how their relationship pans out.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching this show.  It’s the perfect mix of mystery (very often, the ending was a bolt out of the blue and something I would not have predicted) and humour.  However, there were some genuinely sinister moments and gruesome scenarios.  Being a fan of period drama, I loved all the scene settings and costumes too, but I am confident that a love of period drama is not necessary to enjoy this show.

Because the main cast is small, each character is given time to develop; my favourite is probably the loveable Crabtree, who provides much of the humour.  Brackenreid reminded me of how Life On Mars’ Gene Hunt would have been if he were transported back to the 1890s, and Julia Ogden is a great female lead – feisty, intelligent and independent.  Of course, the show is really Murdoch’s, and Yannick Bisson is perfect for the role.

There are currently three seasons of the show, and a fourth is on the way.  There were three television movies made prior to this show.  These were collectively called The Murdoch Mysteries, and starred Peter Outerbridge as the eponymous main character, Keeley Hawes as Julia Ogden, Matthew MacFadzean as Crabtree and Colm Meaney as Brackenreid.  These movies were based on the original novels by Maureen Jennings, and although I have not seen or read these shows or the books, I intend to do so.

For any fans of crime, this television show is highly recommended!

(Official website for Murdoch Mysteries can be found here.)

Year of release: 2008

Directors: (inc.) Don McBrearty, Shawn Thompson, Farhad Mann, Laurie Lynd

Writers: (inc.) Maureen Jennings (books), Alexandra Zarowny, Cal Coons, Paul Aitken, Jean Greig

Main cast: Yannick Bisson, Thomas Craig, Jonny Harris, Helene Joy

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Click here for my review of Except the Dying, the first book in the Murdoch Mysteries series.

Click here for my review of Under the Dragon’s Tail, the second book in the Murdoch Mysteries series.

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Pride and Prejudice is probably Jane Austen’s most popular novel.  Although she is one of my favourite writers, this is probably not my favourite book of hers, but I do very much enjoy reading it, and it stands up well to repeated reads.

It tells the story of the Bennett family of Hertfordshire, their five daughters, and primarily their second eldest daughter Elizabeth.  When she initially encounters Mr Darcy she finds him aloof and cold, and takes an almost instant dislike to him.  His pride and her prejudices mean that they seem unlikely ever to be anything more than acquaintances, but circumstances conspire to bring them to each other’s notice time after time.

I think Jane Austen’s sharp wit comes through in this book, probably more than in her others (with the possible exception of ‘Emma’).  She casts a wry eye over the social niceties of the time, and is not afraid of poking gentle fun at her characters. Elizabeth is a fabulous character – feisty and intelligent, but not above feeling compassion and tenderness to others – primarily her elder sister Jane.

The story isn’t just about Elizabeth and Darcy; it chronicles the events in the lives of the rest of the family as well, but Elizabeth is the character who engages the reader the most.

All of the characters are well developed and distinctive, and the story unfolds beautifully.  Overall, this is a deserved classic, and one which I would very highly recommend.  5 out of 5 from me.

(For more information about the author, please click here.)

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Click here for my review of the 1995 mini series adaptation.

Click here for my review of the 2005 movie adaptation.

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The Pan of Hamgee is charming, funny, quick thinking – and a coward.  The only thing he’s any good at is running away.  It’s a pretty good skill though, and explains why after being blacklisted for five years, he’s still alive when the rest of his family are dead, and his whole existence is treason.  Perhaps there are some people in his home world of K’Barth who don’t want to kill him, but they seem to be few and far between.  It’s probably lucky then that he literally has eyes in the back of his head.

He puts his getaway skills to use as a driver for a gang of bank robbers, but when they inadvertently steal a precious thimble which has magical powers, he is set on a road to disaster, which pits him against Lord Vernon, the despot leader of K’Barth.  Lord Vernon is prepared to go to any lengths necessary to stop the rightful leader from becoming known – and just because The Pan got in his way once before, there’s no way either of them want that to happen again.

The Pan has never believed that ethics and principles are very helpful in the art of survival, but all of a sudden he finds himself fighting for what he believes in, trying to escape with his life, and becoming captivated by a young woman whose name he does not even know.  Will he survive?  Will he get the girl?  And might he even gain some courage along the way?…

Fantasy is not normally a favourite genre of mine, as I can find it hard to suspend disbelief.  However, I did not have this problem with this book.  It’s packed with humour and action, and held my attention throughout.  The struggles for independence and survival by both The Pan and the residents of the land to an extent reflect real life events which happen in our world.

The Pan is a great hero, precisely because he does not possess the usual ‘heroic’ attributes.  He is happy to admit that he is a coward, who is just desperate to stay alive.  For someone who tries so hard to avoid confrontation, he finds himself in many sticky situations and often exacerbates matters by talking before thinking.  But he has charisma and is very likeable.  I also liked his employer Big Merv, who had hidden depths which are revealed throughout the book.

Lord Vernon made for a formidable villain – powerful, intelligent and without a shred of compassion.

The writing flows easily and the story moves along rapidly, with plenty laughs, and detail about the world of K’Barth which is both similar and very different to life on earth.  This book is the first in a trilogy and I was definitely left feeling that I wanted to know what happened next.

Recommended, especially to fans of fantasy, but also to those who might usually avoid it.

(I would like to thank the author for sending me this book to review.  M T McGuire’s website can be found here.)

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This novel is set in America in the years leading up to the American Civil War.  Augustus Cain, a Southern man and a veteran of the earlier war with Mexico, is a ‘soul catcher’ – that is, he hunts runaway slaves and brings them back to their owners.  He wants to give up the profession, but has lost his way in life, and spends his time and money on alcohol or laudanum, women and gambling.  When he can’t pay a gambling debt to a wealthy businessman, he reluctantly agrees to track two of the man’s slaves, which have run away.

The journey will take him into the northern states, accompanied by a group of men who he is not sure he can trust.  The terrain and bitter conditions make the journey tough, and the danger he faces from the abolitionists in the north make it even tougher.  But that is nothing compared to how difficult he finds things when he locates the slaves – and in particular the young female slave named Rosetta.  Cain finds himself questioning his beliefs and his way of life, and wondering if any amount of payment can be worth bringing Rosetta back to the south for.  Suddenly, he has a big decision to make – and faces mortal danger whichever path he chooses…

I really enjoyed this book.  It felt a little slow to start off with, but before I knew it, the story had pulled me in and I was eager to know what would happen to the main characters.  It was some feat on behalf of the author to make the reader feel any sympathy whatsoever for a main character who believes that slavery is, if not desirable, certainly acceptable.  However, despite the distaste I felt for Cain’s beliefs, I did feel that he was a character who most readers would end up rooting for.

The descriptions of the the different parts of America which Cain and his companions (other employees of the businessman Eberly to whom Cain owed money) crossed in order to find the slaves were rich in detail, and very evocative, and the book blended character, plot and description very well.  The famous abolitionist John Brown also appeared in the book as a lesser – but important – character, reminding the reader that although the main characters are fictional, the struggles and bids for freedom made by many slaves, were all too real.

It isn’t perfect – Cain is something of a stereotype, and another character Preacher is a typical ‘baddie’.  My favourite character was Rosetta, who displayed incredible dignity and strength of character, despite the dreadfully unjust hand that life had dealt her.  I certainly felt that Rosetta was a beautifully drawn character, and very easy to care about.

Overall, this was a hugely readable book.  It might not be for everyone – parts of it moved slowly, particularly in the first part, and the subject matter can be disturbing – but I ended up becoming absorbed in it, and would certainly seek out more work by this author.

(Author’s website can be found here.)

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