Announcing our Top 20 Books of 2022

Reviews by Cloggie Downunder

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How Not to Die Alone
by Richard Roper
an outstanding debut novel (8/9/2019)
How Not To Die Alone (also titled Something To Live For) is the first novel by British author, Richard Roper. Andrew Smith works for the council. It’s not a job people line up to do: he searches the dwellings of the solitary recently-deceased to discover if there might be family or funds to cover the funeral that the council is otherwise obliged to provide.

His department, Death Administrations, is a small one and his boss, Cameron Yates has the sort of fervour that makes people cringe (picture a benign version of David Brent from The Office). Meetings in the “break-out space” are greeted with “the enthusiasm a chicken might if it were asked to wear a prosciutto bikini and run into a fox's den.” His other colleagues, except for their newest staff member, Peggy Green, are definitely less than gracious.

On Peggy’s first day, Andrew takes her to a property inspection; later, as she is recovering with a Guinness in the pub, he confesses that he goes to their funerals if no-one else is likely to: “The idea that they'd not have someone to be with them at the end, to acknowledge that they'd been a person in the world who'd suffered and loved and all the rest of it - he just couldn't bear the thought of it.”

Andrew lives in a four-bedroom townhouse near Dulwich with his lawyer wife, Diane and his children, Steph and David. At least, this is the accidental fiction he has somehow perpetuated at work to give him a “normal” image. Andrew actually lives alone in a dingy flat with his model trains and his Ella Fitzgerald records. The only people he might venture to call friends, he’s never met in real life: they are the people who post on the model train forum.

Despite the absence of remains, their job is often an unpleasant one requiring, in addition to a strong stomach, sensitivity, diplomacy and respect. Working with Peggy turns out to be a pleasure, and Andrew wonders if, for the first time in his life, he might make a real friend. Of course, the problem with that is he’d have to tell her the truth about his life, although Cameron’s latest team-bonding brainwave may make it a moot point, when it will be Andrew’s turn to host his colleagues at dinner.

Roper’s first novel is a wonderfully heart-warming and uplifting tale: if there’s no Hollywood ending, there’s the chance of something like one. Readers are likely to recognise one or more of Roper’s characters from everyday life: he gives them insightful observations and wise words; and the underlying themes of maintaining connection and living life to the full are worthy ones.

The comparison to Eleanor Oliphant is quite valid as this novel also has a protagonist living a dysfunctional life as a result of earlier traumatic events, even if Andrew's social ineptitude is less severe than Eleanor's; certainly, his sense of empathy is more refined.

There's plenty of humour both in the dialogue and Andrew's inner monologue but there are also some lump-in-the-throat moments as he gradually shares more of the heart-breaking details of his adolescence and early adulthood. This is an outstanding debut novel and more from this talented author will be most welcome.
The Porpoise
by Mark Haddon
a wonderful read (8/7/2019)
The Porpoise is the fourth novel by award-winning British author, Mark Haddon and is a retelling of the Greek legend of Apollonius. Newborn Angelica is the only survivor of a small plane crash. Her wealthy father Philippe, paralysed by grief at the loss of his wife, becomes reclusive, keeping Angelica in isolation. At first this is from a paranoia about her safety, but then it is his unhealthy obsession, his inappropriate attentions that he needs to hide from the world. And, as she matures, Angelica begins to understand that this is not normal.

It might be observed about Philippe: “If you have never had to face the consequences of your own mistakes, does the quiet, critical, contrary voice at the back of your mind grow gradually quieter until it is no longer audible?”

Darius Koulouris is the son of a recently-deceased art dealer with business ties to Philippe. This rather dissolute young man comes upon something his father had intended for Philippe and immediately recognises the opportunity to check out the fabled Angelica. Before he has been in their company for long, he intuits the situation, but hesitates to get involved. On his return, Angelica begs him to take her away, but Philippe intervenes, with violence: Darius will be lucky to escape with his life…

Angelica has always been an avid reader. “Her favourite stories are the old ones, those that set deep truths ringing like bells, that take the raw materials of sex and cruelty, of fate and chance, and render them safe by trapping them in beautiful words.” Often “She enters that foggy border country between dream and story…she is weaving another world.”

And now the imagined world to which she escapes when subjected to Philippe’s incestuous attentions is one in which Darius escapes the far reach of her father’s murderous intentions. Darius morphs into Pericles who is sometimes Appolinus or Apollonius, sailing the Mediterranean and beyond, saving a city, being ship-wrecked, winning a princess’s hand, suffering terrible tragedy and wandering alone for many years of self-imposed exile.

Not all readers will be familiar with this Greek legend and its various iterations but a quick look at Wikipedia provides the basics, including the fact that William Shakespeare had a go, and Haddon refers to this in the Author’s Notes. The parts of the novel featuring Will are very entertaining, particularly if envisaging him as portrayed by David Mitchell in Upstart Crow.

Haddon’s version of the legend is beautifully told, with some exquisite descriptive prose that easily evokes the era, be it Ancient Greece, twenty-first-century Hampshire or Jacobean London. As the story progresses, Haddon’s Pericles and Chloe, through their trials, gain much wisdom, while Marina, without the benefit of either parent, grows into a beautiful person, within and without, courageous and resilient. While quite a departure from Haddon’s earlier work, this is a wonderful read.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Doubleday Australia
The Chain
by Adrian McKinty
A riveting read. (8/4/2019)

The Chain is the fifth stand-alone novel by award-winning Irish-born author, Adrian McKinty. What would turn an intelligent law-abiding mother into a gun-toting kidnapper? Divorcee Rachel Klein is finds out when her thirteen-year-old daughter, Kylie is snatched from the bus stop. She is told:

“You have to select a target and hold one of that persons loved ones until the target pays the ransom and kidnaps someone in turn. You are going to have to make this exact phone call to whoever you select. What I'm doing to you is what you are going to do to your target. As soon as you carry out your kidnapping and pay the money, my son will be released. As soon as your target kidnaps someone and pays the ransom, your daughter will be released. It's that simple. That's how The Chain works and goes on forever.”

Rachel can’t understand why she has been targeted, but she soon realises: “Selecting the right target is very important. You have to choose the right kind of victim with the right kind of family, people who won't lose their shit and go to the cops and who have both the money to pay and the emotional wherewithal to carry out a kidnapping to get their child back.”

She is warned of the reach of The Chain and the “blowback” that will occur for her if she breaks The Chain. Documented examples are given of people who didn’t heed this warning. But of course, Rachel’s first priority is to get Kylie back, and she will do whatever she must. But even if she succeeds, life will never be the same for them. Will she then let sleeping dogs lie? Or will she risk everything?

Once disbelief is suspended (as Rachel had to do) the reader finds themselves engrossed in a page-turner that does not let up until the heart-stopping climax. McKinty’s plot is brilliantly original and his characters are fairly believable; most of the females are quite resourceful and far from helpless. The dialogue is natural and there’s occasionally some pretty dark humour to relieve the building tension.

This novel certainly serves as a timely warning to those who feel compelled to document every tiny moment of their lives on social media. McKinty enjoys a joke by including a cute little speech in chapter 51 that will have the majority of readers turning immediately to the last chapter. A riveting read.
This unbiased review is from a copy provided by Hachette Australia
The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt: A Novel
by Andrea Bobotis
An outstanding debut novel. (7/31/2019)
“Fair to middlin’. The phrase called up a memory for me, too. Of Grandfather DeLour, Mama’s father. ‘You are only fair to middlin’,’ he had once told me solemnly as I played with my dolls on the front porch steps. ‘But your sister, she’s the finest grade there is.’ Everything in Grandfather DeLour’s life, no matter how disparate— his grandchildren, the taste of his pipe tobacco, the fitness of his horse— he assessed in the language used to grade cotton”

The Last List of Miss Judith Kratt is the first novel by American author, Andrea Bobotis. When seventy-five-year-old Miss Judith Kratt tells her coloured companion (not maid!), Olva DeLour, that she intends to make an inventory of her home in Bound, South Carolina, because it is time, several things happen: listing all the notable items in the house she has lived in all her life brings back some stirring memories; and her younger sister, Rosemarie, absent some sixty years, returns.

Back in 1929, when Miss Judith was fifteen, inventory was her main duty at the Kratt Mercantile Company (est. 1913), so this is a natural thing for her to do, and takes her back there, to the events that culminated in the shooting death of her fourteen-year-old brother, Quincy. The York Herald stated that Kratt Mercantile Company mechanic, Charlie Watson was the prime suspect for the murder but Miss Judith was there, and she knows the truth.

Not that Quincy Kratt was a sweet innocent boy. He took after his father, Daddy Kratt, a thoroughly nasty man. Even Miss Judith herself does not come across as all that likeable but perhaps the observation she makes to Olva applies to herself (and maybe Quincy too): “It is true some of these fictional heroines have challenging personalities, but defects of character are often an outcome of circumstances, are they not?”

For sixty years, Miss Judith has kept the family secrets, and now, it seems, with Rosemarie back, they are going to come out. Olva, too, feels the time has come for some revelations, but more importantly, she is determined to keep those dear to her safe.

The story is told with the tone and cadence of an imperious Southern Lady, as Miss Judith’s statements demonstrate: “Olva and I share the belief that the world reveals itself to you if you take the time to sit and wait for it. Waiting, I’ve found, is not most people’s area of expertise. Olva is a blessed aberration” and “It never ceased to astonish me that we Kratt children grew up in the same hot cocoon of childhood yet emerged as such singular organisms, barely even the same species.”

Given the era and the setting, racism is, of course, bound to rear its ugly head, although even sixty years on, the undercurrent is still there. Olva remarks “It’s a luxury to be able to write or speak in the way you want.” Bobotis has a talent for descriptive prose: “…this gave the sense of the room having been tipped on its side and shaken by a curious child.”

The narrative alternates between 1929 and 1989, with each chapter of the latter era followed by Miss Judith’s cumulative inventory list. While initially the pace is very measured, it is worth persisting for a dramatic climax involving the family’s Purdey shotgun and the heart-warming resolution. An outstanding debut novel.
The Electric Hotel: A Novel
by Dominic Smith
not Smith’s best work. (6/30/2019)
The Electric Hotel is the fifth novel by award-winning Australian-born author, Dominic Smith. For over thirty years, semi-reclusive French cinematic genius, Claude Ballard has kept a suite at Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel, a suite filled with film and memorabilia, but it’s not until 1962 that he consents a request by aspiring film historian, Martin Embry to discuss his life.

When Martin is invited into Claude’s suite, he is assaulted by the vinegar smell and demonstrates to Claude how his precious archive of celluloid is deteriorating. Claude eventually consents to allow a selection of the canisters to be restored and copied. At their regular meetings, he describes for Martin how he first became enthralled in the world of moving pictures.

When he shows Martin his copy of the movie thought to be forever lost, The Electric Hotel, he explains how the key players in the making of that movie came together. The various problems and setbacks that besieged the filming process are explained in much detail, as is the grand premiere and the legal stoush that follows it. The sight of Sabine Montrose’s old valise under his bed takes Claude back to Belgium during the Great War, and this is definitely much more interesting than what has preceded.

The pace is quite slow, the narrative, wordy, and Smith’s attempt to bring this era to life falls short as his characters are initially a little distant and not easy to connect with. The behaviour of the characters meant to evoke sympathy in the reader is such that it is difficult to muster any. But perhaps fans of film history will be fascinated. It’s clear that Smith has done a lot of research into the subject, but trying to include it all is a mistake. The read would be greatly improved if much of the tedious first three quarters was relegated to the cutting room floor.

While some of the prose is gorgeous, this novel is not a patch on Smith’s previous novel, The Last Painting of Sara De Vos. And unfortunately, Smith's latest historical fiction loses half a star because he has succumbed to the irritating editorial affectation of omitting quote marks for speech. He almost redeems it by indicating the start of dialogue with a dash - but not quite. This is not Smith’s best work.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by Allen & Unwin.
Trust No One: A Thriller
by Paul Cleave
brilliant crime fiction (5/30/2019)
“You’re still trying to get used to the idea of what’s happening. You have another appointment later in the week … with a counsellor who is going to give you an idea of what to expect. They’ll no doubt tell you about the seven stages of grief – wait, no, it’s seven deadly sins, seven dwarfs, seven reindeer – grief only has five stages. Denial, Anger, Blitzen, Dopey and Bargaining.”

Trust No One is the ninth novel by award-winning New Zealand author, Paul Cleave. Jerry Grey is a crime writer. He’s written eleven really good crime thrillers; the twelfth wasn’t as good, and the thirteenth, his editor says, has quite a lot of mistakes. That’s because, at age forty-nine, Jerry has developed Alzheimer’s dementia.

When he was diagnosed, the counsellor warned that he might well be in a nursing home within months. And it is indeed this nursing home resident who has found his (obviously very determined) way into the city where he is at the Police Station confessing to an attractive young female detective a murder he committed thirty years before. Trouble is, no one will believe him. The woman keeps telling him the victim, Suzan (with a z) is not real.

Finally, she pulls out a crime novel written by Henry Cutter and shows him the back-cover blurb: the plot is exactly what Jerry is describing. Henry Cutter is Jerry’s pseudonym: “Henry Cutter is who he would become when he wrote, because that way he could be Henry for the bad times and Jerry for the good.” Jerry accepts this, and memories slowly stir, solidify: the attractive young woman is actually his daughter, Eva.

But when Jerry finally returns to his nursing home room, he finds an item in his pocket that he recognises from the afternoon TV news broadcast: if only he could remember where he has been and what he has done, and how he has acquired it. Jerry begins to wonder, can he trust his carers? His friends? Himself?

Following his diagnosis, almost a year earlier, Jerry began writing a journal for Future Jerry “It was a way of reminding my future self of who I was.” Unfortunately it also meant that, in his lucid moments, he would be acutely aware of what he had lost. Journal writer Jerry recorded events and experiences with wit and humour. Sometimes Henry, not such a nice guy, but good at figuring things out, contributed to it.

Cleave gives the reader an original plot that is cleverly constructed with little clues, hints and red herrings. Initially the pace is measured, but the first clue will have the reader hooked and the pages turning right up to the dramatic climax. Cleave certainly keeps the reader guessing: is Jerry not just writing crime, but actually committing it? Or is his alter-ego, Henry Cutter doing the deeds? Perhaps someone around him is taking advantage of his mental state to handily despatch a rival while Jerry takes the blame? Or is there something even more sinister going on?

Jerry, both when lucid and confused, is guileless, the ultimate unreliable narrator. When Captain A (his Alzheimer’s) is in charge of his mind, Jerry comes out with some laugh-out-loud stuff, statements that amply illustrate he has lost touch with reason and reality, and perhaps descended into a slight paranoia.

Jerry seems to be mired in the ‘bargaining” stage: “I know why I have Alzheimer’s. It’s because the Universe is punishing me for the bad things I’ve done. I hurt somebody, maybe even more than one person. The only hope I have of the Universe returning my memories is if I confess to my crimes. I have to go to the police.”

Cleave paints a realistic picture of how the Alzheimer’s brain functions to produce seemingly inexplicable behaviour. The scene where Jerry wakes in his nursing home room, a little hungover after the previous night’s excesses (he thinks), certain that he is in a German Hotel room, on a book tour, is both blackly funny and heart-breakingly real. This is brilliant crime fiction that neatly demonstrates how the concepts of truth, innocence and guilt are altered when the memory is flawed. Topical, thought-provoking and filled with dark humour
Big Sky: A Jackson Brodie Novel
by Kate Atkinson
Atkinson never disappoints (5/25/2019)
“Jackson knew something was dodgy about Barclay Jack, but couldn’t get the knowledge to rise up from the seabed of his memory – a dismal place that was littered with the rusting wreckage and detritus of his brain cells.”

Big Sky is the fifth book in the popular Jackson Brodie series by British author, Kate Atkinson. Running Brodie Investigations from a virtual office has allowed Jackson to rent a cottage in East Yorkshire, near enough to Julia’s filming location for him to spend time with their thirteen-year-old son, Nathan, during his school vacation. And hopefully to instill some knowledge, manners and self-discipline. But on an outing, they witness what appears to be the abduction of a young teen. A find on the beach the following morning cements Jackson’s conviction of foul play, but the local police are uninterested.

But Jackson is already occupied with the usual cases involving adulterous spouses, as well as a bit of entrapment and an interesting exercise in reverse online grooming. And then a trophy wife engages him to find out who is having her followed. Crystal Holroyd doesn’t believe it’s her husband, but isn’t about to share another possible source (her murky past) with Jackson. Soon, the turns in this case are enough to distract him from a missing teen.

Meanwhile, DC Reggie Chase and her associate, DC Ronnie Dibicki have been assigned to review a paedophile case from the eighties involving two local men. With the surviving offender due for early release, Chase and Dibicki are re-examining the files and questioning probable witnesses and associates regarding the possible participation of a third man.

Atkinson’s plot topical and interesting, featuring human trafficking, paedophiles, sex slavery and kidnapping, and has plenty of turns to keep the reader engrossed. As well as saving several lives, Jackson uses the lyrics of country songs as counselling aid, and to disarm a gunman using TV cop show dialogue, before helping a pregnant prospective bride to leave her groom at the altar.

But Atkinson’s strength is her characters and some of their inner monologues are an absolute joy, filled with dry British (and often very black) humour and understatement. Jackson’s narrative is peppered with Julia’s (previously delivered or else anticipated, but inevitably critical) comments.

There is humour, too, in certain situations and the snappy dialogue, with its tangents and asides, including several laugh-out-loud moments. Atkinson manages to include a bunch of terrible cheese jokes, pun-based names for drag queens, and some truly awful off-colour cabaret-type jokes, as well as ferociously-protective mother with martial arts skills, and Primark scarf that is instrumental in two deaths.

Once again, Atkinson carefully builds up her characters until the reader is invested in them and really cares about their fate. Of those characters, Vince initially seems a bit of a sad loser, but which way will he jump when push comes to shove? Crystal and Harry, though, are undeniable gold, and the team of Reggie and Ronnie are pure delight. Fans of the series will remember Reggie Chase from When Will There Be Good News.

Atkinson has a wonderful way with words and some of her passages are superbly evocative and vividly descriptive. While it is not essential to have read the earlier books of this series, this book does contain spoilers for earlier books, so it doesn’t hurt to read them in order. As usual, Atkinson provides a brilliant read and fans will be pleased to know that the ending leaves open the possibility of more Jackson Brodie.
The Stone Circle: Ruth Galloway Mysteries
by Elly Griffiths
Another excellent dose of archaeology-laced Norfolk crime (5/4/2019)
The Stone Circle is the eleventh book in the Ruth Galloway series by award-winning British author, Elly Griffiths. Nearly a decade ago, DCI Harry Nelson was the recipient of some anonymous letters that hampered his search for two missing girls. The writer of those letters, archaeologist Erik Anderssen, is dead. But now Harry and then Ruth, receive similar letters, exhorting them to “rescue the innocent buried” in the stone circle. Harry believes they have same mocking, erudite, menacing tone, but Ruth feels they are more benign.

Is it a coincidence that Erik’s son, Leif, also an archaeologist, has turned up at the same time? He’s conducting a new dig in the Saltmarsh near where, back then, the body of one of the missing girls was found. Harry doesn’t believe in coincidence. And that dig is exactly where they now find the body of a girl, missing for over thirty years. It’s a cold case that’s going to open up old wounds and raise old suspicions.

Both Ruth and Harry are still distracted by an attraction upon which they cannot act: Nelson has a wife, two adult daughters and now, a new baby boy, so he’s unlikely to jeopardise his marriage; Ruth accepts that but is unable (and perhaps unwilling?) to avoid encounters with the father of her seven-year-old daughter, Kate. Then the murder of a suspect in their cold case has Harry’s team redoubling their efforts without making much headway, when suddenly a missing newborn takes precedence.

Once again, Griffiths gives the reader an intriguing mystery full of twists, misdirections, red herrings and a number of possible suspects to keep the reader guessing right up to the final chapters. The circumstances of each disappearance are described from multiple perspectives by the many people involved, each with subtle differences as they are asked to try to recall any little detail that might not seem important. And it’s one of those little details that provides the critical clue.

Her characters, with all their flaws and quirks, are mostly appealing and easily believable. Ruth’s inner monologue is an utter delight: a little (but not too) self-deprecating, wry, insightful, and occasionally a bit cynical. Her ever-critical sister-in-law has foisted a Fitbit upon her: “Ruth fears that her relationship with the Fitbit is already an unhealthy one. She worries about its good opinion of her (otherwise why not take it off?) but she also resents its chirpy bullying. ‘Almost there! You’ve nailed your step target for the day!’ Never trust anyone, or anything, that uses that many exclamation marks.”

And while our heroine may be wearing a Fitbit, her enthusiasm for exercise has not changed: “Ruth scrapes her windscreen with her gym membership card. It’s the most use it ever gets.” Harry, meanwhile, is still working on getting his political correctness right and those alternative types remain hard to accept: “Nelson always finds it hard to imagine Cathbad sleeping. Somehow he pictures him hanging from the ceiling like a bat.” In this installment, his paternal instincts have him threatening to kill someone.

This novel reads well as a stand-alone, but there are quite a lot of references to earlier cases and thus spoilers for earlier books if readers are intending to read the series. In particular, this novel refers back to The Crossing Places in detail, so it is advisable to read that one first. Another excellent dose of archaeology-laced Norfolk crime that will have readers eagerly anticipating Ruth’s next outing. Recommended.
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt publishers.
Nine Days
by Toni Jordan
A brilliant historical read! (4/22/2019)
Nine Days is the third novel by Australian author Toni Jordan and was inspired by a photograph from the State Library of Victoria’s Argus newspaper collection of war photographs. Starting in pre-war suburban Melbourne, it tells the story of the working-class Westaway family over the following seventy years.

Each of nine characters has a devoted chapter in which they narrate the details of their particular life-changing day: thus Nine Days. As each chapter unfolds, significant details are added to the picture until the reader finally grasps the enormity of events in this family’s wartime experience.

Jordan gives the reader a cast of characters with real depth, characters to love and despise, characters that exasperate, characters to laugh and sympathise with, as each chapter shows events from their perspective. Jordan’s descriptions are strongly evocative of wartime Melbourne and each narrative is invested with an authenticity of language appropriate to that character, giving the story a truly genuine feel. Each narrative is connected not only by the characters but also by other important elements: a lucky shilling, an amethyst pendant, an Arnott’s biscuit tin, twins, art and photography.

The story incorporates various topics, among them poverty and hunger, abortion and contraception, responsibility, gossip and respectability, bravery and patriotism. A wartime story is bound to include death, so of course there is heartache, grief and sorrow, but there is also love and joy and plenty of humour.

I particularly loved the irony of Mrs Hustings stating “it’s a shame the world is so full of gossips”. I would have loved more of Kip, whose dry humour and smart quips had me from page one. Toni Jordan has lost none of the magic of her previous novels, “Addition” and “Fall Girl”, and has, in fact, has surpassed these. What will she do next? I can hardly wait!
Greek to Me: Adventures of the Comma Queen
by Mary Norris
Informative and entertaining. (4/19/2019)
“Why do we lean on dead languages for new things? Perhaps expressing these things in the language that is oldest, in words that we have in common with many other languages, gives us a touchstone.”

Greek To Me: adventures of the Comma Queen is a memoir by self-admitted philhellene and best-selling American author, Mary Norris. She has been on the staff of The New Yorker for some 35 years, and a Page OK’er for twenty of those. Norris has been referred to by some as a prose goddess, or a comma queen. She begins by declaring her fascination with all things Greek, and explaining how and why she came to study ancient Greek under the aegis of The New Yorker.

She explains how the Greek alphabet derives from the Phoenician, and many other alphabets from Greek; why Athena is a good model for a copy editor; and she declares her respect for those authors of definitive works on Greek and Greece.

This is a memoir that isn’t bound by chronology but is filled with Norris’s love for Greek, and her experiences with Greek and in Greece. Norris takes us on her somewhat comic pilgrimage to Elefsina in search of the Eleusinian Mysteries; she details her short stage career in Greek tragedies, one that had her recalling her family’s own tragedy and drawing on experiences of her own and those close to her; she describes days copy editing, nights immersed in Greek; skinny-dipping in Aphrodite’s Bathing place in Crete; visits to, and exploration of, the Acropolis.

The echoes and connections in the English language that Norris makes with ancient Greek are sometimes obvious, sometimes personal and quite tenuous: when she explains it, an anthology is a word bouquet; Dipsás? (Are you thirsty?) has an obvious connection with dipsomaniac.

Norris notes today’s reverse trends: audio books taking us back to the oral tradition; reading on devices requiring scrolling so many thousands of years after scrolls were abandoned for books; and texting language that omits vowels, just as the Phoenician alphabet did.

On alphabets, she tells us: “A ‘character’ is a symbol for recording language… the word comes from the ancient Greek charásso, meaning ‘to make sharp, cut into furrows, engrave.’ The leap from a symbol graved in stone to a person endowed with a sharply defined personality is a good example of the way a word ripples out into metaphor.”

For the unenlightened, there is much to be learned from this memoir: where the terms uppercase and lowercase come from; that omicron literally means small O and Omega, big O; how the direction of text originated; the absence of spacing; the irony that the modern Greek word for eucalyptus derives from ancient Greek, but via English, as the English botanists who named it in Australia in 1788 did so from ancient Greek.
The etymology is often interesting: “If surgeons knew that the word surgery comes from the ancient Greek cheirougia (hand work) meaning ‘handiwork’, and could apply as well to needlepoint as to brain surgery, they might not be so arrogant.” Informative and entertaining.
Machines Like Me
by Ian McEwan
a fascinating read, highly topical and incredibly thought-provoking. (4/17/2019)
“We learned a lot about the brain, trying to imitate it. But so far, science has had nothing but trouble understanding the mind. Singly, or minds en masse. The mind in science has been little more than a fashion parade. Freud, behaviourism, cognitive psychology. Scraps of insight. Nothing deep or predictive that could give psychoanalysis or economics a good name.”

Machines Like Me is the seventeenth novel by award/prize-winning British author, Ian McEwan. It’s England in 1982, but a very different 1982 from the one with which most readers are familiar. Alan Turing alive and celebrated, and (probably consequently) technology is as far advanced as that known in the second decade of the twenty-first century. The Falklands war lost to the Argentines, with Maggie Thatcher (for a while) somehow holding onto power; grumblings about Poll Tax and rumblings about leaving the European Union; the Beatles re-formed; and AIDS a short-lived, well-treated, illness.

And this is Charlie Friend’s Britain. He's thirty-two, unemployed and living in a damp and dingy flat in Clapham. He’s good at losing money and self-delusion. He’s infatuated with his upstairs neighbour, a twenty-two-year-old student named Miranda. He staves off poverty by online share and currency trading. And he's just spent his inheritance, £86,000, on an artificial human.

Adam is one of twenty-five (Adams and Eves): “the first truly viable manufactured human with plausible intelligence and looks, believable motion and shifts of expression.” When Adam is all charged up and turned on for the first time, still on his factory settings, as it were, he begins to warn Charlie about trusting Miranda, but is interrupted. Charlie doesn’t want to hear it, because his plan is for Miranda to share setting up the personal preferences of Adam’s parameters, effectively making Adam their “child”, and he hopes this will bring them closer.

By the time Charlie does want to hear, it's too late. Charlie and Miranda have set those parameters and Adam is reticent, conflicted. It’s an interesting experiment, and Charlie soon realises that “…an artificial human had to get down among us, imperfect, fallen us, and rub along.” As their lives carry on with a degree of unpredictability, Adam’s behaviour sometimes surprises, sometimes delights but also dismays them both.

McEwan gives the reader plenty to think about, to mull over and discuss, as he manipulates the challenges they face from their own experiences and interactions, and adds the wrinkle of political upheavals. For example, he has his characters arguing about the Falklands War from a very different perspective.

Topics that have likely been discussed ad infinitum in artificial intelligence circles, like: When can a machine be regarded as a human? and the concept of robot ethics, in this tale come from another angle: Is it possible to be unfaithful with a machine? Jealous of a machine? Can a machine feel love? Can a machine lie?

As Alan Turing’s life and achievements are quite integral to the story, it helps to be acquainted with these (quickly rectified on Wikipedia for the unenlightened), and while an in-depth knowledge of Britain’s political figures in the 1980s is not essential, it would no doubt enhance the reading experience. The Brighton Bombing, Thatcher, Healey and Benn are there (or close approximations of them) even if McEwan alters their fates to suit his story.

McEwan’s characters are quite believable and there’s even a bit of subtle humour in a tale that looks at what might have been, and what perhaps could be in the very near future. This is a fascinating read, highly topical and incredibly thought-provoking.
The Crossing Places: A Ruth Galloway Mystery
by Elly Griffiths
An outstanding debut novel (4/15/2019)
The Crossing Places is the first book in the Ruth Galloway series by award-winning British author, Elly Griffiths. Norfolk DCI Harry Nelson has been haunted by the unsolved case of little Lucy Downey’s disappearance for ten years. When some human bones are discovered at the salt marshes near Kings Lynn, Harry calls on archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway to give an opinion on the bones. Ruth’s cottage is quite close, and she is interested in anything to do with the marshes. The bones, and the accompanying Iron Age artefacts, turn out to be a noteworthy find for archaeology, but no resolution for the Downey family.

Nelson is impressed by Ruth’s professionalism, and he makes an impression on her too: “He was an odd man, she thought, brusque and unfriendly, but it seemed as if he had really cared about that little girl.” It’s this caring, perhaps, that sees her ready to help.

Then another little girl goes missing, and Nelson asks for Ruth’s input on the letters he has been regularly receiving, letters telling him in the vaguest terms where Lucy, and now young Scarlet, are. The letters are filled with a mixture of strange references: biblical, Norse legend, literary, Greek legend, pagan and archaeological, and successively take an increasingly exasperated, at times almost taunting, tone at Nelson’s failure to find the missing girls.

This specialised knowledge means that, if the letters are actually from the killer, suspicion falls on certain people who were in the area ten years earlier: Ruth was on a dig with colleagues and volunteers, excavating a beach henge; a group of Druids were part of a protest against it. Could one of these seemingly gentle, nature-loving souls be a murderer? A grisly find on her doorstep then has Ruth wondering if she’s being warned off.

Griffiths tells the story using Ruth and Harry as her main narrators, with occasional passages from the perspective of a captive girl. The plot is believable, the archaeology interesting and the characters are quite convincing for all their flaws and quirks. It is certainly refreshing to read a female protagonist who is not slim and gorgeous. There are twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing right up to the final chapters, and little surprise that will ensure readers are eager for the second instalment, The Janus Stone. An outstanding debut novel.
The Department of Sensitive Crimes: A Detective Varg Novel
by Alexander McCall Smith
Delightfully tongue-in-cheek. (4/13/2019)
The Department of Sensitive Crimes is the first full-length novel in the Detective Varg series by popular British author, Alexander McCall-Smith. And he’s having a lend of us, the reader. If that’s not obvious from the title and the characters, then the cases they deal with should confirm it. Those characters, though, do give him enormous scope for insightful observations and wise words.

The DoSC consists of Carl (incredibly conscientious), Erik (obsessed by fishing), Ulf (kind and sensitive and in impossible love with his married colleague), Anna. The annoyingly enthusiastic but less than competent Officer Blomquist also lends a hand. And let’s not forget Martin, Ulf’s deaf, depressed, lip-reading dog, Mrs Hogfors, his neighbour and Dr Svensson, his therapist.

The cases, passed on from Malmö’s Criminal Investigation Authority because they are slightly unusual, are also a rich source of material for philosophical discussion: an unwitnessed stabbing in the back of a knee; a missing boyfriend who’s imaginary; and a possible werewolf. As Ulf and his team carry out their investigations, they are extremely prone to heading off on (often amusing) tangents during questioning. All are successfully resolved, but not without much deep discussion of the behaviours encountered.

McCall Smith’s characters discuss, debate and ponder topics as diverse as imaginary friends, politically correct terminology for small people, the canine environmental footprint, osmotic knowledge, vegan objection to pets and whether the obsessed can be happy.

When Ulf muses on gentlemanly behaviour, it’s very pertinent to the current “me too” cases: “...although he knew that nobody talked about being a gentleman any more, the concept still existed somewhere under the burden of the new language of relationships, the language that stressed self-determination and personal space. That was not all that different from the code of gentlemanly conduct that had previously prevented men from inappropriate conduct in their relations with women. The things that men were now supposed not to do were precisely the things that gentlemen were not meant to do anyway - so what was the difference? Were we simply becoming old-fashioned again, as societies tended to do when they saw the consequences of tearing up the behavioural rule book?”

While it sounds like a crime novel, McCall Smith describes it as Scandi Blanc (as opposed to Scandi Noir) and anyone who is reading his work for the crime aspect has the wrong end of the stick: McCall Smith’s crime books are an exercise in examining human behaviour and the gentle philosophy which that inspires. Delightfully tongue-in-cheek.
Monkeewrench: (UK title: Want To Play?)
by P.J. Tracy
A stunning debut novel. (4/2/2019)
Want To Play? (also titled Monkeewrench) is the first book in the best-selling Monkeewrench series by award-winning American mother-daughter writing duo, P J Tracy. At their office in Minneapolis, the owners of software firm Monkeewrench are almost ready to launch their new game, Serial Killer Detective (SKUD). Over five hundred gamers have been trying out the game on their test site, and advance sales are encouraging. They’re doing some final stage tweaking when they learn of a murder at Lakewood Cemetery: an exact copy of the second murder in their game.

For Detective Leo Magozzi and his partner on the homicide squad, Gino Rosleth, this is the second murder in two days, and when the Monkeewrench team contact them about the murder, they are horrified to learn that both murders are copied from the game. Worse still, a further eighteen murders comprise the game, and they are starting with a huge suspect list. They are inclined to include the Monkeewrench crew as suspects, although Magozzi’s gut feeling is that one of their number, Grace Macbride, is not involved.

Meanwhile, in a small Catholic church in Calumet, Wisconsin, a reclusive couple is discovered shot dead. To Sheriff Michael Halloran, it almost looks like a hit. The paranoia that ruled the couple’s lives, evident from a deadly stash of weapons, was apparently justified. As Mike investigates further, it seems this is not the only strange thing about the couple. Leo Magozzi and his team work around the clock trying to prevent the next murder while in Calumet, Mike Halloran tries to track down the old couple’s child. At this point, their investigations intersect.

The Tracy’s characters are appealing and their dialogue provides plenty of humour, much of it quite dark. They also use it to good effect to draw out the tension as the story heads towards an exciting climax. The story is cleverly plotted with quite a few red herrings and the odd twist that will keep readers guessing until the final, gob-smacking reveal. In itself, a novel written by two authors is an interesting concept; this one is seamless and the duo is obviously successful, if a further nine books in the series are any indication. A stunning debut novel.
The Stranger Diaries
by Elly Griffiths
gripping thriller (3/8/2019)
“It’s one thing to fear a thing for yourself, another to hear it confirmed in a matter-of-fact way by a Detective Sergeant. It’s as if the angel of death has flown over the room, flapping his grisly wings.”

The Stranger Diaries is the first stand-alone novel by British author, Elly Griffiths. When her good friend and colleague in the English Department of Talgarth High School is murdered, Clare Cassidy is shocked. Ella Elphick was a much-loved and respected teacher, and she can’t imagine why anyone would viciously stab her to death. Clare is determined to protect her sixteen-year-old daughter Georgia, a student of Ella’s, from exposure to this awful crime. Might Georgia, though, know more about this murder than she is admitting; perhaps even more than she realises?

Herself an ex-student of Talgarth, DS Harbinder Kaur seems inexplicably suspicious of Clare, and wants to know more about a rumoured affair between Ella and the department head, but Clare is reticent. When Clare checks her personal diary from that time, she’s surprised at the emotions she recorded. But what shocks and scares her is the sentence in italics, addressed to her, that she definitely did not write.

When DS Kaur reveals the text of a note left by the body, Clare, as prospective author of a biography of nineteenth-century Gothic author, R.M. Holland, recognises it as a quote from his short story, The Stranger. A practical joke in the form of a costumed dummy placed in Holland’s study (preserved in Talgarth’s attic) sets Clare’s nerves even more on edge.

Readers familiar with the two (so far) series that Griffiths has written will not be one bit surprised at how well-written this piece of crime fiction is: the three narratives (Clare, Harbinder and Georgia) detail what happens after Ella is murdered (with diary entries and flashbacks to earlier events), and the overlap of these different narratives offers alternative perspectives, gradually revealing facts not initially apparent.

Each revelation brings another possible suspect, until one of those too is murdered. Is life imitating art? The murders look like re-enactments of murders in R.M. Holland’s short story, The Stranger, with elements of Wilkie’s The Woman in White and Shakespeare’s The Tempest. Clues are subtly inserted as the story steadily progresses, before then racing headlong to a dramatic climax.

In her gripping thriller, Griffiths manages to include stabbing, garrotting and stigmata; gossip, infidelity and false alibis; a white witch, a ghost and a brave dog; ritual and symbolic artefacts. There are red herrings and not a few surprises, and even the most astute reader is likely to be kept guessing until the final chapters. Recommended!
This unbiased review is from an uncorrected proof copy provided by NetGalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishers
This Is What Happened
by Mick Herron
Excellent British crime fiction. (2/21/2019)
This Is What Happened is the third stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Mick Herron. Twenty-six-year-old Maggie Barnes hadn't made any friends in the time she'd been in London. She lived in a tiny flat and worked a fairly boring job in the post room down in the basement of the Quilp House. A toxic ex-boyfriend had her avoiding Facebook; she'd dipped a toe into the Twittersphere and had seven followers, several of those probably bots.

When Harvey Wells came along to the café she frequented in the park, Maggie was at first wary. But he knew all about her, and when he explained what he needed her to do, and why, she was both flattered and excited. The idea that she could do something worthwhile for her country was rather thrilling.

Dickon Broom had a not-quite PhD in Philosophy at Cambridge, and worked as a language instructor. He’d had a good position at Marylebone Intensive School of English until a student made trouble for him. That rather queered the pitch at his last interview for a teaching position, and these days he relied on giving private lessons (not ideal) for an income. But now he had another problem to deal with, one that stood in the way of the life he deserved to have

Meredith’s younger sister had apparently been missing for two years. She felt bad about that: they'd lost contact after their parents’ funeral. The police didn't seem interested, treating the whole thing as a case of someone who had decided to disappear, so Meredith was making her own enquiries, and now she had someone in her sights.

Herron’s third stand alone is a little different, but still has many of his trademarks: it has all his careful scene setting; his characters are quite believable; their dialogue natural. While the astute reader will, by the first third of the story, have figured out much of what is going on, there are still a good number of twists, surprises and red herrings to keep it interesting.

The humour is there, but much more subtle than the often laugh-out-loud moments in his Jackson Lamb series, and mostly quite black. Readers hoping for any Slough House character cameos will be disappointed, but fans knowing Herron’s tendency to kill off characters will be racing to the dramatic final pages to discover who survives. Excellent British crime fiction.
Nobody Walks
by Mick Herron
Outstanding British crime fiction. (2/18/2019)
Nobody Walks is the second stand-alone novel by award-winning British author, Mick Herron. Tom Bettany barely makes it back to London for his son, Liam’s funeral. They were estranged for four years, Tom was out of the country, and a colleague of Liam’s rang to let him know. The calls from the police had been more vague, but when he arrived, DS Welles told him that Liam’s death was accidental: high on a particularly potent type of dope, he fell off his balcony.

Tom, though, had been ex-Service before he severed all ties and, at his son’s flat, something sets off an alarm bell for him. He is soon convinced that Liam was murdered, and is determined to find out who is responsible. But his questions are upsetting quite a few people, and equipping himself with the necessary announces his return the crime bosses whose long incarceration he effected during his “joe” days.

Then someone on high at Regent’s Park sends young J.K. Coe (unofficially) with a message: a “do not disturb” on one name, an implication of responsibility for another. The source alone flags the information with a high index of suspicion, so Bettany sets out to verify, while ensuring to stay under the radar of the various parties eager to get up close and physical with him.

Fans of the Jackson Lamb series will be pleased to know that this story is set in the same universe, with at least six names known from that series playing roles or rating mentions here, one of whom comprehensively proves that the fate meted out to them in a later book is absolutely a just desert, if insufficiently punitive.

Coe was introduced in the novella, The List, and took his place in Slough House in Spook Street; in this novel, the reader learns the details of the ordeal that landed him under Jackson Lamb’s supervision. Once again, Herron produces a fast-paced crime novel with twists and red herrings to keep the reader guessing and the pages turning right up to the jaw-dropping revelations of the final chapters. Outstanding British crime fiction.
Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions: A Kopp Sisters Novel
by Amy Stewart
Excellent historical crime fiction (2/12/2019)
Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions is the third book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. As Deputy Sheriff and Matron of Hackensack jail, Constance Kopp deals with several so-called morality cases where young girls, often runaways, are arrested for Waywardness or Illegal Cohabitation. Detective Courter and Paterson’s only female police officer, Mrs Belle Headison, are of the opinion that these girls need to be sent to the reformatory until they attain 21, while Constance and Sheriff Heath believe they can be rehabilitated with the right support, in such cases where the arrest is not actually on entirely frivolous grounds.

Edna Heustis is one such young lady whom Constance manages to have released with a clever defence, and then finds herself informally appointed, through a casual remark from the presiding judge, as a probation officer of sorts. But not all the cases are quite so innocent and Constance learns some facts of life that may see an unfortunate girl in regrettable circumstances. Minnie Davis looks headed for the Reformatory but, when Constance sees that place first hand, she is determined to prevent it.

Meanwhile, young Fleurette is champing at the bit for more freedom, her current wish being a place in May Ward’s popular vaudeville troupe. What Fleurette wants has Constance re-examining her own beliefs on appropriate behaviour for a young lady. Norma’s distrust of strangers reaches new heights and sees her taking unprecedented action, with some unexpected consequences. In trying to realise her fondest desire, Fleurette learns that the reality is not only disappointing but also rather tedious.

In this instalment, Constance: finally gets her Deputy’s badge; can’t escape the voracious press and their highly inaccurate reporting; is consequently plagued by letters offering marriage, clever rejections to all of which are produced with great alacrity by Norma; and is dismayed to hear that the coming elections will furnish her with a new Sheriff, possibly the man who is currently the bane of her life, Detective Courter.

Stewart’s Historical Notes and Sources are interesting and informative, revealing that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvellous tale.

Stewart effortlessly portrays the characteristics of everyday life of the early twentieth century and clearly demonstrates how different life was over a hundred years ago, including the utter dependence and powerlessness of women at this time in history. The letters proposing marriage, and the replies drafted by Norma provide some wry humour, as does the dialogue. Excellent historical crime fiction that will have readers seeking out the fourth book, Miss Kopp Just Won’t Quit.
Lady Cop Makes Trouble: Girl Waits with Gun #2
by Amy Stewart
Excellent historical crime fiction. (1/29/2019)
Lady Cop Makes Trouble is the second book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. While she has been a very active Deputy for Sheriff Robert Heath at Hackensack for two months, Constance Kopp learns that her job is not as secure as she had hoped. Two months later, Constance is filling the role of jail matron for the female prisoners while she waits for her badge: as an elected official, Heath has found obtaining approval for employing the first female deputy is challenging.

One of her charges perplexingly admits to murder despite evidence to the contrary. Then a prisoner escapes under Constance’s watch, putting both her job and the Sheriff’s freedom in jeopardy. As her sisters keep themselves busy with their preferred pursuits (carrier pigeons, dressmaking and acting), Constance decides she must track down the escapee herself.

Constance does some excellent detective work and, being a well-built lady, does not eschew chase and tackle when required. In this instalment, Constance and Sheriff Heath prove that they make a very capable team, holding matching ideas about law enforcement and criminal detention, and affording each other respect for their intelligence and abilities.

Stewart’s Historical Notes and Sources are interesting and informative, revealing that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvellous tale.

Stewart effortlessly portrays the characteristics of everyday life of the early twentieth century and clearly demonstrates how different life was over a hundred years ago. The (often humorous) print column headlines to which, in the first book, the sisters continuously drew each other’s attention, or occasionally invented to suit their particular situation, are noticeably absent in this book, but there is still humour in their dialogue. Excellent historical crime fiction that will have readers seeking out the third book, Miss Kopp’s Midnight Confessions.
Girl Waits with Gun
by Amy Stewart
Excellent historical crime fiction. (1/15/2019)
Girl Waits With Gun is the first book in the Kopp Sisters series by NYT best-selling American author, Amy Stewart. When, on a fine July day in 1914, silk factory heir Henry Kaufman recklessly drives his motorcar into the buggy conveying Constance Kopp and her sisters to town, the ladies suffer minor injuries but the buggy, their only means of transport, is wrecked. Henry and his thuggish friends make to drive off, but Constance refuses to be intimidated, vociferously insisting that he accept responsibility for the damage, which astonishes onlookers and annoys Henry.

By November, the Kopp sisters have been the target of verbal abuse, written “Black Hand” threats, damage to their home and attempted arson, and Constance’s sister Norma is convinced that withdrawal would have been a better course of action. Of course, sixteen-year-old Fleurette, so far protected from the world, just finds it all terribly exciting.

It’s not just the demands for reparation that have attracted the ire of young Kaufman: Constance also seems to have involved herself in a possible kidnapping case in which Kaufman is implicated. And even with Sheriff Robert Heath allocating deputies to protect the sisters, they seem to be in dire straits when the latest threat arrives.

Readers new to the Kopp Sisters series may be surprised learn from Stewart’s Historical Notes and Sources that Constance Kopp and her sisters were real people, much as described, as are quite a few of the other characters. Many of the events that form the plot also occurred, if not always when stated. Stewart takes the known historical facts and fleshes them out into a marvellous tale.

What won’t amaze is the utter dependence and powerlessness of women at this time in history. Stewart effortlessly portrays the characteristics of everyday life of the early twentieth century and clearly demonstrates how different life was over a hundred years ago. Miss Kopp, however, is clever, resourceful and persistent, although not even these qualities can protect her from some adverse events. Her fierce protectiveness of her sisters adds to her appeal.

The print column headlines to which the sisters continuously draw each other’s attention, or occasionally invent to suit their particular situation, are often a source of humour. There is some first-rate detective work done, and the last line will have readers eager for the next instalment, Lady Cop Makes Trouble. Excellent historical crime fiction.

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