All 2019 reviews - Shastrix Books

2019

All reviews

The Secret of the Crooked Cat

The Secret of the Crooked Cat

19th May 2019

One of the classic Three Investigators stories that I remember well from reading as a child. The team set out to locate five stuffed cats, after one is stolen from them at a travelling fair.

It contains all the elements that make up the best of this series. A guest child that needs help, a bunch of creepy adults with their own agendas, and a mystery that’s just scary enough.

It’s a great tale, if a little dated now, and a thrilling adventure for the characters.

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Altered Carbon

Altered Carbon

19th May 2019

Recent TV series Altered Carbon is based on this book - though I’ve entered the world from a book-first approach, so can’t compare the two.

The story find us in a world where consciousness can be removed from one body, stored electronically, and downloaded into another - possibly on another planet. We are aligned with a character with a mixed past, who has been forced into helping to investigate an unusual crime back on Earth.

It’s a fascinating idea, and a solid science fiction novel that explores the repercussions of an interesting and just-plausible future technology. But I didn’t find the narrative compelling enough to hook me as much as I needed it to. I wanted to feel like I couldn’t put the book down, and to be excited to pick it up on my commute each day, but it didn’t manage it - and eventually felt like I was only reading to get it over with quicker.

So overall I don’t think I’ll be continuing to read the series, and I’m not inspired to start watching the TV version either.

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Worlds Turned Upside Down

Worlds Turned Upside Down

19th May 2019

This behind-the-scenes book about Stranger Things caught my eye in the bookshop because of its artificially battered cover and attempt to look very 80s. As a teenager, I devoured works about the creation of films and TV series, from Star Trek and James Bond to Dad’s Army and Captain Scarlet. I knew pretty much immediately that I had to have it.

It’s a great telling of the story of the series, from the Duffer brothers’ upbringing, their inspirations, how they created the world, and then how it was fleshed out through both seasons (to date) by actors, designers, and all the other production creatives who work on the show.

The book is packed with photography and tiny details that make it incredibly compelling and enjoyable to read. I had to pace myself to ensure I didn’t devour it in a single sitting - allowing myself just a few pages each night alongside another book.

An excellent companion to the series and one I’m really happy to have stumbled across.

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The Memory of Blood

The Memory of Blood

19th May 2019

Book nine for Bryant and May takes a different route than the one I had expected. The previous two novels having formed a mini-series, I was expecting this to form part three of the trilogy, but I was wrong and it stands alone.

The crime seems rather more brutal than those of previous novels, and somewhat more of the classic locked room mystery, just with the usual peculiar crime aspects bundled in - such as the apparent only suspect being a puppet of Mr Punch.

Somewhat confusingly, this isn’t the only paranormal crime novel set in London featuring Mr Punch that I’ve read this year, and I did find I needed to remind myself every so often which bits of plot belonged to which book.

It’s a good mystery though, and continues to explore the characters who work with the Peculiar Crimes Unit, and I look forward to continuing adventuring with them.

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Curtain

Curtain

19th May 2019

The final Poirot novel returns us to where his adventures began in the very first novel, and to Captain Hastings, who returns to help bookend the series. Poirot slowly reveals that there is a murderer about, and that he requires Hastings’ agility to investigate and feed him information.

It’s a compelling and classic mystery, with the typical Christie wit and classic unexpected plot twists throughout. The reveals are perhaps more frequent than usual, and it’s as if Christie has been trying to produce a definitive masterpiece for her finale publication.

It makes for sad reading, not only because of the story itself, but also as it is the end of my own adventures with Poirot, who I’ve been accompanying for the last decade. It is however a fitting end, and one that does its job of surprising me well.

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Madness is Better than Defeat

Madness is Better than Defeat

28th April 2019

I picked this book up very cheaply based on little more than the cover catching my eye. It has an interesting premise, but not one that really kept me engrossed.

It feels like it almost wants to be a Wodehousian romantic comedy, set in an era of exploration, where several well-to-do people who either know or are aware of each other are thrown into an unusual situation and have to interact while all maintaining their own agendas.

Despite a promising start, it slowed down rapidly in the middle portion of the book, to the point where I found myself not wanting to pick it up. So I put it down about halfway, and haven’t paid it another though since.

So not something I can recommend, I’m afraid.

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The Clue of the Broken Blade

The Clue of the Broken Blade

, &

28th April 2019

Another original (well, in the case of my copy, updated original) Hardy Boys story, which sees the brothers become involved in a particularly complicated case focussed on a story of inheritance.

There are the usual twists and turns, though some elements did seem rather too much of a coincidence, and others obvious from fairly early on.

So not one of the best, but still a nice quick relaxing revisit.

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Lies Sleeping

Lies Sleeping

28th April 2019

Somehow the seventh novel in the Peter Grant / Rivers of London series, this story sees some of the ongoing plot come to a head.

As with some of the other stories, there’s a vague sense as I read it of having missed something, which makes me feel like I’ve forgotten a previous story but I think is just a reference to things that are happening ‘off camera’ in the space between the novels.

I continue to love this series, and find it hard to put the books down. The characters are compelling, bearing a rich and textured backstory that we’re still only gradually picking apart, and evolving social lives, which paint them into a wider world of magic and the mystical, while still allowing the presence of a solid plot to progress.

A series I totally recommend reading.

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The Way to the Stars

The Way to the Stars

28th April 2019

The fourth novel based on the latest Star Trek series, Discovery, is the first written by a woman, and I’m slightly surprised that sums wasn’t asked to write one sooner, both because the show has made a point of focusing on its female characters and creators, and because Una is probably the best Star Trek novelist currently writing.

This book tells some backstory for the character Tilly, a cadet when we first meet her on TV, but here a high schooler. It draws on a number of character moments dropped into the series, particularly Tilly’s relationship with her mother, and creates an excellent story intertwining coming-of-age, boarding school, space adventure and much more.

My favourite of the Discovery novels so far - not the same sort of adventure as the earlier three - but much more fitting for Tilly and in keeping with McCormack’s usual trick of telling a character story that’s incredibly engrossing. A must read for anyone who loves Discovery and Tilly, and recommended for everyone else too.

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The Witness at the Wedding

The Witness at the Wedding

23rd January 2019

After what feels like a couple of years I finally found this, the next book in the Fethering series - and dived back into the comfortable lives of Carole and Jude. Carole’s son is getting married - injecting a fun element of soap opera to the plot - but there are murderous goings-on amongst his future in-laws which Carole feels compelled to get to the bottom of.

Comfortable is definitely the right word for this book. Its familiarity makes for a relaxing read, and Brett manages to find new ways to take the classic murder mystery and make it really fun.

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Skyward

Skyward

23rd January 2019

I honestly don’t know how Brandon Sanderson can create so many amazing different worlds. This one is a new series - a science fiction tale that’s marketed as Young Adult but is frankly as suitable for any adult as any of his other works. It’s the tale of a colony defending itself against alien attack, and a teenager who wants to be a pilot in defiance of those around her.

It took me a couple of chapters to get into the swing of the novel - but from then I was completely hooked. There’s so much going on with all the distinct and complex characters - who are gradually unpicked throughout - the intrigue and mystery of the various threads of the plot, the action and adventure, the science fiction principles and world building, and the odd little teases that there’s something else going on under the surface.

It’s like a cross between Sanderson’s Rithmatist (another excellent tale about a child at a school they aren’t wanted at) and Ernest Cline’s Armada, and I absolutely loved it and am so glad that there are going to be three more books in the series.

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Masks

Masks

23rd January 2019

A Star Trek: The Next Generation novel from (probably) the late 80s - set during the second season of the TV show (as evidenced by the presence of Dr Pulaski) and seeing Picard and several of his crew marooned on a planet where an old Earth colony has evolved into something resembling mediaeval Europe.

The plot is interesting and keeps moving at a good pace - there’s multiple threads going on and lots of the characters get to play. However it also feels a bit odd - there’s a visiting Ambassador who is typically troublesome, and this feels like it’s a bit of an over-used Trek trope.

John Vornholt has, following this novel, written quite a few Trek novels, several of which I’ve read - but it’s quite clear in this one that he’s in his early days of familiarity with the TNG crew. There are some elements which are clearly just things that the series hasn’t addressed yet, so they weren’t contradictions at the time of writing - but others (such as using the letters JG in ‘Lieutenant JG Worf’ as if they are the character’s initials rather than part of his rank) that wouldn’t slip through the net today.

So, not a perfect novel, and one that feels slightly dated having seen what the whole of TNG is like (well, to date) - but still an entertaining one that’s worth reading even if you aren’t a completionist.

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Shadow Wave

Shadow Wave

23rd January 2019

The final novel in Robert Muchamore’s original Cherub series is a bit different (this seems to be a trend in this sort of young adult series actually). James, now 17, has a little more agency and decides to refuse a mission on moral grounds - and creates a mission of his own instead.

It’s a great twist actually, and wraps James’ story up quite nicely in a way that concludes the long arc that we’ve followed as readers since he was much younger. The book retains some of the key elements from earlier stories, revisits a lot of the important characters, and is full of the usual action, and realism, that I’ve come to expect.

I really enjoyed this adventure and am quite disappointed that this main series has come to an end - despite the knowledge that there are already two spin-off series, one of which I’ve already begun reading.

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Five Children and It

Five Children and It

23rd January 2019

I first read this book many years ago, and recall vaguely a television series based on it. I was inspired to pick it back off the shelf after I’d been discussing it with some colleagues. It’s the tale of a family of children, who with their mother and servants, retire to stay in a somewhat dilapidated house in the countryside, near a disused quarry.

There are a number of what I think of as nods to the adults that I suspect the author believes to be reading to the intended youthful audience, but much of the backstory that might interest an adult is skipped over in favour of the adventure. There’s certainly a dated element to it - I suspect a lot would not be identify-with-able for today’s young audience without having to set some of the historical context (but I could be wrong) - and this is true of the narration as well as the content.

I’m not entirely sure what the point of the book is - it’s clearly not strictly educational, but I’m also not convinced there’s much of a morality tale to it beyond explaining the law of unintended consequences. Perhaps it is indeed just a fun adventure - which it still is, just about.

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Past Tense

Past Tense

23rd January 2019

The latest in the long series of Jack Reacher novels sees the ex-Army nomad wandering America when he spots the hometown of his father - and in an uncharacteristic bout of nostalgia he decides to have a look around. Turns out that things aren’t as they seem.

The book seems to have two parallel storylines that only really interact by virtue of being in the same place at the same time, and both involving the same character. Okay, this description makes them sound quite connected, but thematically they don’t seem linked and the two plots don’t seem to tie together particularly well - it’s almost like two shorter stories glued together.

However it’s not a bad adventure, and I quite enjoyed the mystery aspects and trying to guess what was going on. I think I worked out one of the major reveals quite early on, but I certainly missed some of the clues and didn’t get everything right.

A perfectly serviceable entry in the series despite the slight disjointedness.

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Rin, Tongue and Dorner

Rin, Tongue and Dorner

23rd January 2019

A weird book that I was leant by a friend. It follows the life of an engineer in a post-apocalyptic society, where people live on islands under domed habitats kept warm in a snowball earth scenario by massive, temperamental generators. It’s a fascinating setting and has the potential to make for a really interesting story - but unfortunately this isn’t that story.

The narrative focusses on the engineer Dorner as he falls in love with Rin and is affected by a voice in his head called Tongue. After a quantity of sex and weirdness, the narrative descends into a chaotic mess of fire that I struggled to follow or maintain any interest in.

I’m afraid I don’t think I got it - I wasn’t entertained, and only really made myself keep reading to the end so that I could provide adequate feedback to my friend. Not recommended.

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The Reckoning

The Reckoning

23rd January 2019

2018’s John Grisham novel is an interesting blend of his earlier and later styles. We start out with the traditional courtroom drama setup - we find out what happened, who’s who, what the lawyers are up to, and end up in court. But this book also gives us something else - a lot more back story than I was expecting, and a lot more forestory (if that can be a thing).

It’s fascinating to see a bit more of the story than just the court case - and to dig in and try to understand things in a bit more detail. That said, there’s a large chunk of the novel that feels a bit like ‘John Grisham was learning recently about this historical event and now wants to tell you about it’, and it’s very dark and very grim - possibly the hardest thing to read that he’s written, which is quite a thing for an author whose previous works have included executions.

In the end, I don’t think I really liked this story - it’s too unpleasant in the choice of subject matter to be entertaining, and turned into more of a history lesson than a story. I don’t think I can bring myself to recommend it because of this.

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The Naming of the Dead

The Naming of the Dead

23rd January 2019

Book sixteen of Rebus, and this time he’s investigating a crime that nobody else seems to care about, because the victim was a criminal himself.

I found the setting of this book really interesting - it’s set around the G8 summit at Gleneagles in 2005, and so the plot of the novel is weaved around real-life events taking place there, with guest appearances by world leaders and the characters lives being shown to be influenced by the events happening both there and elsewhere in the country that week.

The way that Rankin manages to add touches like this to his stories that make each one unique in some way adds to the whole experience for me, and I often feel compelled to pick up his novels when I’m wondering what to read next.

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Tao Zero

Tao Zero

13th January 2019

I’m not usually a big reader of hard science fiction, and so felt slightly nervous about picking this off the shelf. It’s the story of a deep space colony ship - sent out to try to find a new planet and home for a post-nuclear humanity - a ship that will travel so fast it will experience time dilation to the extent that there is no going back.

Anderson (who I had for some reason incorrectly thought was a woman) has put together a rich world for his characters to leave behind - with some fascinating titbits dropped into the backstory before the plot moves out into space. Really, the story is about the collective group of people aboard his spacecraft, and how they interact and cope with the situations that the universe throws at them.

However it very much seems like it’s about the collective and not the individuals - which made the book feel dated. More recent stories seem to focus more on individual characters, their feelings and thoughts, whereas the community feels more important in this now-older novel.

I don’t think I can go as far as to say I enjoyed reading it. It was interesting, and the mechanics and details of the story were well plotted out, but it felt academic and distant.

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The Moscow Sleepers

The Moscow Sleepers

13th January 2019

The tenth Liz Carlyle novel sees the increasingly senior MI5 officer back in contact with a Russian source, who points her in the direction of a complex plot against the UK and its allies. There’s quite a lot going on across multiple countries and it’s interesting to see how the author balances these in a way that doesn’t affect the flow of the narrative.

I enjoyed seeing some more of the relationships between the recurring characters - it’s been quite fun seeing how they’ve grown since the early novels, and unlike some authors they haven’t been left as recurring stereotypes in each episode.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about this series, which continues here, is the realism - there’s no sense of the overly dramatic - instead the tension is applied through the subtle believability and the authentic way that the author portrays the goings on in the shadows - there’s no sense in reading it that the events couldn’t actually have happened.

Another solid entry in the series, and I look forward to more to come.

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Lies of the Beholder

Lies of the Beholder

13th January 2019

The third and final novella in the Legion series sees our main character beset by problems when one of his aspects - hallucinations that represent part of his own mental faculties - goes missing, and he’s forced to face another absent person from his history.

It’s been quite a while since I read the first two books in the trilogy, so my memory of the story so far was patchy, but I was soon back into the swing of things and gripped to what ends up being quite a complex narrative, which must have required an extensive set of notes to keep track of while writing, despite the short length.

I’m not sure though that it entirely works - I think the first book was the best in the series, and it feels a little bit like the latter pair were follow-ups that exist for closure rather than because there was a story waiting to be told. Regardless, it’s incredibly impressive how dedicated and disciplined Sanderson must be to keep up the levels of output he does, and I’m very grateful for all I get to read - one day I might even catch up!

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Barren

Barren

13th January 2019

The fourth short story from the world of the Demon Cycle - this time focussing on relationships between some of the minor characters from the series, and showing how their world and culture has evolved over time, neatly paralleling changes in the real world.

It was a nice chance to revisit this series after I read the conclusion of the main narrative earlier in 2018. My memory of the characters that appear here was a little sketchy, but that didn’t stop my enjoyment.

I hope that this is a sign that there will be some more trips into this world, but failing that I remain excited to see what Brett’s mind brings us readers next.

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Lethal White

Lethal White

13th January 2019

The fourth book in the Cormoran Strike series returns us to the office of the London private detective and his partner Robin. The plot is so complex that it’s hard to find a sentence to describe it - there are so many interconnected threads of the possible crime that Strike is asked to investigate, and simultaneously we follow the private lives of the two detectives as they also increase in complexity.

I think the mystery is excellent, and frequently I had to pause and review what I’d learnt from the text and revise my mental model of what was going on and who I suspected. The lives of the main characters however seem to suffer from the trope of not talking to one another - and being a bit more open and communicative might have shaved a few chapters of angst off the book.

I really love this series and am glad of this new book - hopefully it won’t be too many years until these characters can return and I can find out what happens next.

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Darius the Great is Not Okay

Darius the Great is Not Okay

13th January 2019

I was lent this book by a friend, sold to me on the interesting premise of a young Trekkie who is visiting Iran for the first time. Naturally it is actually vastly more complex and interesting than that.

Darius is a young Iranian-American kid who has never visited his maternal grandparents, but now the time has come as his family are off on a daunting trip to Iran. The story is a great way to share another culture with the reading audience who can go along with Darius as he learns new things and experiences a culture he has only really heard about in the past.

But the book is far deeper than that - the author has managed to pack in so many different life experiences into one relatively short novel that it’s hard to tell if I even noticed all the overlapping layers that are going on in Darius’ life. I really enjoyed reading it and learning, I feel, quite a lot about a number of possible experiences.

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Top books

  1. Worlds Turned Upside Down
  2. The Way to the Stars
  3. Skyward
  4. Lies of the Beholder
  5. The Secret of the Crooked Cat
  6. Shadow Wave
  7. The Memory of Blood