Very Inspiring Blogger Award

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It was lovely to log in this morning and to find out that the lovely Susan of the lovely blog A Life In Books has nominated me for a lovely Very Inspiring Bloggers Award. Thank you Susan, it’s much appreciated, coming from someone who has such a finger on the pulse of what’s good in the world of books. I must add that we’re delighted to have you on board as one of our reviewers over at Shiny New Books too and next time I come to Bath for a day out, I’d love to meet you in person…
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The award has the following rules:

  • Thank and link to the person who nominated you.
  • List the rules and display the award.
  • Share seven facts about yourself.
  • Nominate 15 other amazing blogs and comment on their posts to let them know they have been nominated
  • Optional: display the award logo on your blog and follow the blogger who nominated you

Here are my 7 facts:
1. I was born in leafy Surrey in the much-maligned Purley, which is just south of Croydon proper, and my immediate family all still live there. I’m the one that got away!
2. I’m a single mum to a teenaged daughter with gorgeous Pre-Raphaelite tresses, (strawberry blonde or light auburn depending on the light).
3. I’m lucky enough to have two indie bookshops on my doorstep in Abingdon. Mostly Books and The Bookstore. I am spoilt for choice and try to support them both.
4. I’m going to have a break from compiling and hosting the Abingdon Mostly Bookbrains literary quiz next spring. After doing five, I’d like to have a go at actually competing. Fingers crossed that one of the MB Book Groups will take it on…
5. These days I work as a science technician/TA in a local prep school for boys – which is actually fun (apart from washing up test-tubes – yes I do have a dishwasher, but you can’t mix chemicals in the machine – they must be rinsed first). Although the pay doesn’t match up to a teacher’s salary, I do get to do pond-dipping, flame-testing for fireworks colours, all sorts of activities with the Junior Science Club, growing crystals… and hopefully help to enthuse some future scientists.
6. My musical claim to fame is having played (second) violin in an orchestra conducted by Simon Rattle, before he hit the big time. It was in 1979 or 1980 (bit hazy), and having led the Croydon Youth Orchestra for a while, now at uni, I was invited by CYO conductor Ian Butterworth to join the Salomon Orchestra – a London-based non-professional symphony orchestra, for a series of concerts at St John Smith Square amongst other venues. We played Mahler 5 (I think) as the main piece. I only did one season though.
7. My personality type tends to be ‘extrovert introvert’ – I’m rather shy until I get to know you. But I love extrovert colours – driving an metallic apple green car, wearing a lot of bright red.

That’s enough about me… here are ten other wonderful bloggers that I’d like to nominate to receive this award (15 is too many).

1. Tales from the Reading Room. As co-founder of Shiny New Books, I’d be remiss not to put Victoria at the top my list. Apart from that, her blog is inspirational in the sheer quality of her writing about books and her life, and she’s a lovely person too.
2. Stuck in a Book. Simon’s blog is one of the first I discovered when I dipped my toe into the blogosphere. We rarely read the same kind of books, but I really want to know about all the mid 20th century novels I don’t have time for – he is for me, the go-to expert at middlebrow fiction, (and another Shiny colleague and friend).
3. Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings. I always thought I was a fan of books-Russian (although you wouldn’t know it from my blog), but Karen is a real expert and writes so interestingly about many Russian and Eastern-European authors and poets, she makes Russian literature fascinating.
4. Thinking in Fragments. Alex reads a big variety of novels, crime in particular, but underlying it all is a love and understanding of Shakespeare and an academic passion for the art of storytelling. A theatre fan, she can often be found in Stratford.
5. Tolstoy Therapy. A relatively new to me blog that I plan to visit more frequently, Lucy has a unique angle on literature as bibliotherapy and is interested in the mood-enhancing powers of a good read.
6. Harriet Devine’s Blog. I have to include my other Shiny New Books Editor. Like Simon and Victoria, Harriet has been blogging for years, and I respect her opinions a lot. She’s a big crime fan and lives in France, so that’s already two ticks – but also manages to find wonderful pictures and artworks of women reading each week.
7. Reading The End. Jenny’s blog is such fun! She’s young and opinionated and has the most hilarious tags I’ve ever seen.
8. His Futile Preoccupations. Guy has two reading passions – translated classic European fiction and noir. I must admit I gloss over the first category, but I adore his noir reviews. He is also one of my most frequent commenters – Thank you Guy!
9. Lonesome Reader. Another new to me blog, Eric writes some great reviews on a wide range of books, and we’ve recruited him to Shiny!
10. Savidge Reads. I couldn’t leave out the other Simon. If Simon was a Mr Man, I’d call him Mr Project as he always has so many sidelines on the go – but his passion for books always comes through on his blog.

Books of the year … so far

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As we’re just past halfway through the year, I thought I’d take a quick look back at my favourites so far – all books getting 10/10 from me…

tigermanI’ll start at the top – my book of the year, so far, is one I’ve recently reviewed for issue two of Shiny New Books. Tigerman was the first novel I’ve read by the amazing Nick Harkaway. I loved this book, and I became a complete fangirl (if you can say that of a 54-year-old woman – Ed) when I met him at a recent event (see here). Tigerman is an eco-thriller about an post-empire island paradise and features superheroes and romance in a style Graham Greene would have been proud of. And, I’ve got Nick’s first two novels still to read – Yay!

hangover squareBack in January, I experienced the beautiful prose of Patrick Hamilton for the first time when I read Hangover Square. This story of unrequited love in darkest Earls Court just before the war was simply stunning. Very dark though… See my review here.

Life-After-LifeI’d been put off reading Kate Atkinson by not liking her debut when I tried it many years ago. I’m so glad our book group chose Life after Life – for I loved it. It’s sheer cleverness won me over within pages and then I started to appreciate the writing. See my review here.

It’s back to Shiny New Books for two last favourites – well it is a book recommendations site after all:

bedsit disco queenBedsit Disco Queen is Tracey Thorn’s autobiography of her life in the world of pop and it is such fun and so brilliantly written all the way through (unlike a certain other popstar’s memoir!). You don’t need to be a fan of Everything But the Girl, the band which formed the major part of her musical career, but after reading this you’ll want to be one.

into the treesAnd lastly, Into the Trees by Robert Williams. Everything that forests stand for, both good and bad, is used to great effect in this understated contemporary novel about the effects a forest has on a family living in it. It deserves a wider readership – see my review here.

So that’s my top five so far out of over sixty books read. It’ll be interesting to see if they’re still in my books of the year by the end of December.  There’s some big names coming up for autumn – McEwan, Waters, Amis, and John Cleese’s memoir to mention just a few that I’ll be reading…

What has been your best read of the year so far? Do share …

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To explore any of these titles further on Amazon, click on the author name below:
Harkaway, Hamilton, Atinson, Thorn, Williams.

 

So bleak – thoughts about the Carnegie winner

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The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks

BunkerI’d been too busy lately to get involved with reading any of the Carnegie shortlisted books this year until the results were announced. The Carnegie Medal for 2014 was recently awarded to Kevin Brooks’ latest novel The Bunker Diary – and it’s been very controversial. I immediately turned to the copy I’d bought and read it in one session with a short pause to make tea. Gosh! It was good … BUT … and there is a big but – it is the most depressing book I have read in a long time.

It’s now traditional for years 7-8 in schools (11-13yrs) to shadow the Carnegie Awards and pick their own winner from the shortlist. The boys at my school picked this book as their winner, as did a wider group of Abingdon schools (see here), so it has been very popular with early teens indeed. Let’s find out a little about it.

The book starts with a boy telling us how he’s woken up to find himself in a concrete room – a small complex with six bedrooms, a bathroom and communal area. The only way in is by lift. He’s all alone. He tells us how he was kidnapped: ‘I thought he was blind, that’s how he got me.’  He went to help a blind man lift his case into a van…

Teenager Linus has been living on the streets for five months, he ran away ‘to escape the shittiness of school and the emotional madness of being at home.’  His father is a successful cartoonist and illustrator and has no time for his son. His mother is gone. Linus’ father is rich – he supposes he’s been kidnapped and is being held for ransom. That hope is dashed a couple of days later, when the lift comes down and disgorges a seven year old girl, Jenny, from Essex where her father works for a DIY chainstore.

It’s obvious that they’re being watched. Linus and Jenny try sending messages up in the lift to ask for food. It works. But the lift also brings down four more people to fill the rooms: Fred, a big burly junkie, Bill a businessman, a woman Anja who mostly keeps to her room and cries, and Russell an older man who is already dying of cancer. You’ll root for Linus and Jenny all the way through as they are forced to grow up fast in the changed dynamics of the group and take the lead on thinking of escape plans.

I have to pause there for a *** SPOILER ALERT *** I won’t discuss the plot any more in detail, but it is difficult to discuss the novel further without giving away the sense of the ending.

I mentioned earlier that there has been a lot of controversy surrounding the selection of this book as the Carnegie winner. The Carnegie awards were set up to champion children’s fiction, and the short-listed books ‘appear’ to be edging up the age range each year. The Bunker Diary is a young adult novel. Despite the 11-13 year-olds enjoying it in the shadowing exercise, I wouldn’t recommend it to that age group in general. If you look at the official shortlist page here, you’ll see that three of the eight books including The Bunker Diary are recommended for 14+, four are 11+ and just one is 9+. The Carnegie Medal is, according to the website, ‘awarded by children’s librarians for an outstanding book for children and young people,’ so it is fair to include YA books isn’t it? Or should a separate prize be developed for 14+ titles?

If you look at the list of winning books there are many titles that are full of war, violence, revenge, bullying and so on – all challenging subjects for young people to read about. Not all the prize-winners have happy endings either, e.g. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, and even C.S.Lewis’s The Last Battle, however, the context that they are set in, i.e. war in both these cases makes tragedy seem an acceptable way to end a novel. The Bunker Diaries doesn’t have that excuse – the kidnapping and forced imprisonment of the six is apparently entirely at the whim of the kidnapper. There’s no explanation about it at all. It doesn’t even feel like the kidnapper is treating them as experiments – it’s purely a game until the end, like a cat playing with a half-dead mouse. Nasty, nasty, nasty.

I think it’s this feel of senseless violence and gratuitous torture that has got people riled. Read Alison Flood’s coverage of the debate in the Guardian here, and see what novelist and children’s book critic Amanda Craig says here. It’s fascinating stuff.

I must admit to feeling a bit conflicted. I didn’t like it – it’s not a book you can like, but I appreciated it and was numbed by it. I’m not a fan of unnecessary happy endings, but this one got me asking why, why, why? There are no answers, but yes, I would let my daughter read it if she wanted to, and I would be happy if they were to discuss it at school. Not every parent or librarian will feel this way though.

junkCILIP, the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals aren’t afraid of controversy though…

Can you remember back to 1996 when Melvin Burgess’ novel Junk, about teenage heroin addicts won?

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Bunker Diaryby Kevin Brooks, Penguin 2013, paperback 272 pages.
Junkby Melvin Burgess.

 

A ‘Shiny’ review …

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I was so busy doing other things behind the scenes etc with issue 2 of Shiny New Books this time, that I didn’t write as many reviews, plus a couple of the books I’d hoped to recommend there didn’t quite come up to scratch, so there won’t be as many linky posts from me this time!

However, I did read several really, really good novels and would like to direct you over to read my full reviews, and the first I shall highlight is:

Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato

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I think that Much Ado About Nothing is possibly my favourite Shakespeare comedy (especially the film version with Ken and Em), and Marina Fiorato is one of the few authors of mostly historical novels that I really look forward to reading. Her first novel The Glassblower of Murano was one of my first book reviews on this blog (here) followed by The Madonna of the Almonds the following year (see here).  I find her novels more fun than many other historical ones, and although they’re based upon impeccable research, they are not slaves to recorded history living happily alongside.

So to Beatrice and Benedick. It’s a brave author who takes on Shakespeare to write a prequel – to flesh out the sparring would-be lovers back story that it’s obvious they have, but old Shakey never told.

I loved it. It’s very dark in places, but also very funny, and if you liked Ken and Em in the film and imagine them in this novel, you’ll love it too. Perfect lighter summer reading. (9/10)

So get thee over to SNBks ==> full review here.

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Source: Review copy – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
Beatrice and Benedick by Marina Fiorato, Hodder & Stoughton, May 2014, Hardback 448 pages.
The Glassblower of Murano by Marina Fiorato, paperback.

What is an accident anyway?

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Accidents Happen by Louise Millar

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I used to work for one of the world’s major chemical companies whose mantra was that there is no such thing as an accident. After too many ‘accidents’ making explosives in the 1800s, the company became intensely safety focused, and remains so today. They believe, and naturally it rubbed off on me (I ended up as a H&S manager for them) that all incidents have a root cause, and that finding and engineering or training it out etc. if possible is the way to go.

Thus I was naturally intrigued by the title of this novel. Having recently seen Louise speak, I knew I was expecting a tightly plotted psychothriller with some issues of trust and family values at its core, and I wasn’t disappointed. It’s one of those stories that crescendos gradually, dropping in little details and clues that will become clear later on in the final climaxes.

Kate and her young son Jack have arrived back from school. Kate is suspicious of everything and everyone – the tailgating driver on the way home, surely there was more in the casserole in the fridge?  She is constantly on edge, and Jack doesn’t know how to handle his mother. She’s in danger of losing it – and we soon find out that they have suffered a double dose of grief from which they’ve not yet recovered. First Kate’s parents died in a tragic car accident, then her husband Hugo was murdered, stabbed in a mugging gone wrong.  She’s all alone, and she feels that Hugo’s parents Helen and Richard think she’s incapable of looking after Jack properly, maybe Hugo’s sister Saskia who was always her ally feels that way too. For it all happened five years ago …

One of the things that Kate has started doing is to do sums… she researches the odds of things happening and calculates the statistics, so she can stop more bad things happening to her and Jack. Nagged by her in-laws, she finally goes to see a therapist and tells her about this:

‘OK, there was a lot of traffic tonight so I decided to cycle. But before I cycled, I did a sum. I worked out that because it’s May, my chances of having a bike accident are higher because it’s summer, and about 80% of accidents take place during daylight hours, but more than half of cycling fatalities happen at road junctions, so if I went off-road I could lower it drastically. So I did. And because I am thirty-five, I have more chance of having an accident than another woman in Oxfordshire in her twenties, but because I was wearing my helmet, I have – according to one American report I read, anyway – about an 85% chance of reducing my risk of head injury. Then when I was cycling I balanced my chances of having an accident with the fact that by doing half an hour of sustained cardio cycling, I can lower my risk of getting cancer. Of course, that meant I increased my chances of being sexually attacked by being alone on a quiet canal path, but as I have roughly a one in a thousand chance in Oxfordshire, I think it’s worth taking.’
She thought she saw Sylvia flinch.

She can’t bear it, so escapes from the therapist’s house and ends up in a cafe where she encounters Jago Martin, a visiting Oxford Professor. He just happens to have written a book about beating the odds. After meeting again, Kate is a bit besotted by Jago, and when he agrees to help her in her predicament she acquiesces with little thought. His methods are not conventional though, he wants to teach her to become a natural risk-taker…

There are many different facets to the drama of this novel – Kate’s relationship with her in-laws, with Saskia, and Saskia’s own relationship with her parents, poor Jack and his over-protective mother, the introduction of Jago, and not forgetting the weirdo student next door who always seems to be haning around.  Over all of them is the aura of Hugo, gone but never forgotten. Kate had always been prone to worrying, but Hugo with his big-hearted happy soul had made things all right, given her life the balance it now lacks.

Millar cleverly misdirects us; everyone has issues, no-one is straight-forward – it’s hard to get to grips with what is bound to happen – or is it more ‘accidents’? The suspense builds.

Imagine a Sophie Hannah novel without the police involved, and slightly more family oriented and you should get the measure of this book. I enjoyed it a lot. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Accidents Happen by Louise Millar, 2013, Pan paperback 426 pages.

 

Thank you!

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A quick little post to say thank you. I hope you don’t mind if I blow my own trumpet a little, but just now I was scrolling down my sidebar and I came to my ebuzzing stats bar – and it told me that the June blog stats were up, and then I saw the number on the literature one.

June StatsI truly don’t deserve this high a ranking in the stats. There are many far better blogs out there (see my side bar for a good selection for starters) and there are many other wonderful blogs that aren’t listed at this rankings site.

Obviously I’m basking in the collective glow of the Shiny New Books effect, and my co-editors’ blogs Victoria, Simon and Harriet should be up there at the top with me, and to be above others like Kim at Reading Matters (have you seen her Tim Winton interview over at Shiny yet by the way? Click HERE) doesn’t seem right…

But I am immensely gratified, and so I will bask in it for a little while. So I’d just like to say a huge THANK YOU - to anyone who follows and visits my blog or reads it via any other method, and to everyone who comments, or just passes through.  It’s a cliché of course, but it really isn’t about the stats. It’s nice though!

 

The Bookshop Crawl for IBW2014

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Bookshop-Crawl-Participating-200-x-200Today I participated in (as far as I was able) the Bookshop Crawl for Indie Booksellers Week. I visited the two indie bookshops in our town and got my daughter to take a picture of me at each.

Here I am at Mostly Books in Abingdon, where I was welcomed and given a sticker for the crawl and bought two books … (both unknown unknowns – see the previous post).

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and below here I am at The Bookstore in Abingdon where let’s say they were very low-key about it …  I bought some cards.

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Celebrating IBW with the Inky Fool & a Giveaway

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Last night I was at my local indie bookshop and spiritual home Mostly Books for an event to celebrate Independent Booksellers Week. Each year the IBW people commission an essay to be sold as a little booklet only in indie bookshops. Previous authors have been Julian Barnes and Ann Patchett.

ibw2014Mark Forsyth, author of The Etymologicon, The Horologicon and Elements of Eloquence, and blogger at The Inky Fool, who has been to Abingdon a couple of times before (see a previous report here) has written this year’s essay entitled The Unknown Unknown after Donald Rumsfeld’s famous quote.  It’s about the joy of discovering books that you didn’t know you wanted to read when browsing in bookshops amongst other ‘state of the book’ discussions.

I have two extra copies of this great essay, which Mark kindly signed for me, to giveaway – details at the bottom of the post.

mark forsythMark (left) is on tour throughout IBW, and last night came to Abingdon to talk to us. The previous night he’d been at a big event at the new Foyles ‘The Great Bookshop Debate’.

Mark and Mark from the bookshop started off the evening talking about the essay and its main theme of ‘Discoverability’ – it’s difficult to google or search amazon for books you’re not aware of – but walk into a bookshop and you’ll find all those books you didn’t know about and didn’t know you wanted to read – it’s the joy of browsing. He told us how this very afternoon he found a book in a bookshop that he didn’t know he wanted – Peter Rabbit in hieroglyphics!

They talked about how the publishing industry appears to think the physical book is ‘doomed!’ (in Dad’s Army pronounciation of course), but Forsyth thinks they are whingeing a bit and it’s not as bad as all that. Actually it’s going alright he said, especially when you think about how the younger generation are communicating in text – you have to craft a text or tweet. He thinks the world is getting more literate in this respect. Also, surprisingly, he said that ‘e-books have made books beautiful again.’  Publishers are working harder on covers etc to attract readers of physical books.  He’s also not a fan of bookshops turning into coffee shops with a few books – people have to pick up the books to discover they want them.  Forsyth is a very engaging and refreshingly honest speaker which made for good conversation.

Browsing in the bookshop after the talk, I did find an ‘unknown unknown’ book that I just had to buy …  In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge (trans from the German by Anthea Bell).  Which brings me to the…

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It was a lovely evening and I bought two extra copies of Mark’s essay to give away to you lot, which he kindly signed for me.  These are limited editions and can only be bought in UK indie bookshops.  I will happily send them worldwide.  You have until UK tea-time on Wednesday.

To go into the draw, please tell me about the last ‘unknown unknown’ book that you purchased (preferably in an independent bookshop – and give the shop a plug).

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth. Icon books 2013. 224 pages, hardback.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit (transcribed into Egyptian Hieroglyphic script) by Beatrix Potter.
In Times of Fading Light by Eugen Ruge. Faber paperback.

A new brand of WWI spy …

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Jack of Spies by David Downing

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US cover

Some readers may already be familiar with David Downing; the six books of his ‘Station’ series of spy thrillers set in WWII Berlin are highly regarded. Now he has set his sights back to just before the First World War to start a new series of spy novels with a new hero – Jack McColl.

Jack McColl is a car salesman, travelling the world with a bottle-green Maia automobile, taking orders from those with money for whom the luxury of a hand-made British vehicle will show that they’re somebody, not just an everyman that would buy a factory-built Model T from Mr Ford.

When our story starts in 1913, McColl is in China. He has been joined on this leg of his round-the-world tour by his younger brother Jed and colleague Mac. This suits McColl fine – it gives him more time to do his other job:

It was left to part-time spies to do the dirty work. Over the last few years, McColl – and, he presumed, other British businessmen who travelled the world – had been approached and asked to ferret out those secrets the empire’s enemies wanted kept. The man who employed them on this part-time basis was an old naval officer named Cumming, who works from an office in Whitehall and answered, at least in theory, to the Admiralty and its political masters.

With all the unease at home over the likelihood of a European war, McColl has been asked to find out the disposition of the German fleet in Asia and whether the Chinese are supplying them with coal. McColl’s hotel in Tsingtao is full of Germans, and he’s made ‘his sad lack of linguistic skills’ clear to them; in reality languages are McColl’s gift and he gets useful nuggets of information from listening in. One of the Germans, an engineer called Rainer Von Schön, is friendly to McColl and they enjoy a drink and conversation together.

Staying in the hotel is an American woman journalist, Caitlin Hanley. She has dark brown hair and green eyes and comes from Irish descent. It is clear that she will become the love interest in this novel – but when they embark upon a small affair – intended to last until he has to return to England and she to New York, little does McColl know, just how Irish her family is and how they will become tied up in his investigations.

Before that though, the next leg of the journey involves shipping the Maia to San Francisco, via Shanghai, and it is there that he is mugged and stabbed – and ends up spending the voyage released from hospital but flat on his back recuperating. Was he mugged? Or was someone out to get him? Had his cover been blown? By Whom?

UK cover

UK cover

Caitlin is on the same ship, and when she finds out and he is better, they resume their affair, but she’ll be staying with friends at the other end. This might be it, but you know deep down it’s not. McColl jacks in the car sales job, and take up Cummings’ offer of being a full-time spy, getting diverted down Mexico way for a while, before returning to New York and getting seriously embroiled into Irish politics.

McColl is a likeable enough spy, but lets his heart rule his head in this novel. If that carries on, he won’t live much longer – although you do see him being to develop the detachment needed towards the end. All the way through, he is on the edge of being exposed to Caitlin as a spy who’s using her to get information, knowing it’ll kill the romance dead. He’s a former soldier, so he is able to handle himself well in adversity, but it does make him a bit boring. Caitlin, of course, is a sparky new feminist, a suffragette fan.

The globe-trotting locations naturally brings 007 to mind – his villains would never do their dastardly deeds somewhere a bit ordinary. However, here, it just makes the novel rather bitty – McColl is no Bond, and his villains are political and real in the form of the Germans and their allies; the Chinese and the Irish in this case. There’s quite a lot of explanation of the political situation all the way through which, while necessary to some extent, was very dry and I found the whole Mexico section to be hectic but boring.

While I suppose that to some extent, the first novel of a series often has to do a lot of setting up situations for its sequels, Jack of Spies ended up being too wide-ranging and episodic, meandering around the world. I probably would read its sequel, but I’d prefer to encounter Downing’s other spy John Russell in the Station novels first (#1 – Zoo Station is on my shelves). (6.5/10)

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Source: US Publisher, Soho Press – thank you.

To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Jack of Spies by David Downing. Old Street Publishing, paperback June 2014.
Zoo Station (John Russell 1)by David Downing (2007)

 

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