Posts Categorized: Review

Review: ‘Mrs Sinclair’s Suitcase’ by Louise Walters

October 29, 2017 Review 2

This is one of those books with a great premise let down by less than perfect execution. It’s ambitious – a dual-timeline story, with the grandmother in the second world war and her granddaughter in the present day. Each woman has her own story, but needless to say they have echoes of each other and eventually overlap.

The grandmother’s story is by far the more interesting to me. Dorothy is married to Albert, a working class man she married as much to escape her mother as for any other reason. Mother then casts her off for marrying beneath her. The marriage seems dogged by tragedy, with a succession of miscarriages followed by a stillbirth. When war breaks out, Albert takes off, leaving Dorothy alone, where she falls under the spell of a young Polish airman.

Modern woman Roberta works in a new and second-hand bookshop, leading a pretty dull life, when all’s said and done. She has a passionless affair with a married man (a customer!), visits her father, slowly dying of cancer, and her grandmother, now in a care home. Her sole pleasure, it seems, is finding letters, cards and messages hidden in the second-hand books she sells.

Neither of these women is particularly likable, it has to be said. Roberta is just too timid and insipid and downright passive to be interesting. Dorothy keeps herself aloof from the inhabitants of the small village where she lives, refusing to join the community and making no friends. Her tragic life ought to make her a sympathetic character, but this is one area where the author misses a trick, for somehow Dorothy’s emotional state never quite resonates, and she seems to have a curiously flat personality. She is instantly attracted to the Polish airman, Jan Pietrykowski, and all thoughts of her husband and marriage are abandoned. When her husband returns home on leave, Dorothy shows no interest in him, or sympathy for his experiences. The result is not entirely a surprise.

In fact, this is a feature of the book – pretty much everything that happens is telegraphed in big letters from an early stage, so there were no unusual twists of any merit, and everything is fairly predictable. This in itself is not a problem, for a skilled author can make the journey interesting, even when the destination is never in doubt. Unfortunately, the author here doesn’t quite have that ability. Major scenes lose all emotional resonance, or are so clumsily handled that they are almost laughable. For instance, without giving away any spoilery details, there’s a moment where one character engineers a major confrontation over an action by Dorothy. It’s a very dramatic scene, where everything Dorothy hopes for could all be swept away. How will it be resolved? The reader waits with baited breath… and the confrontational character simply says, “Oh, all right, do what you want then,” and walks away. All tension dissipated at a stroke. There are several moments like that which are just clumsily written, and towards the end several people behave contrary to their previous characters – Mrs Compton, for instance, and Dorothy’s mother, where it all felt a bit too easy. And the love interest resolution in the modern section is very clumsy.

An irritant for me (and this is a nitpick, because I’m sure most people wouldn’t notice) was in the writing of the modern sections. These are written in the first person (I walked… rather than she walked…), and paragraph after paragraph was riddled with sentences beginning with ‘I’. Here’s an example: “I tidy shelves. I make sure they are not too tightly packed. I take stock each year,…” I don’t mind the simplistic, short sentences, but all those ‘I’s just jump out at me and upset me. It’s really hard to write in first person without scattering ‘I’s all over the page like pepper, but it can (and should) be done (even in a review! Now I’m seeing all those ‘I’s of my own). The visual element of writing is important. But otherwise, I liked the difference between the modern sections (short, staccato, self-focused) and the war-time sections (longer, more elegantly written paragraphs). It fitted well, I thought.

I understand that this was the author’s first published book, so it may well be that these little hiccups will disappear in later work. It’s an interesting and confident work, if a little flawed (to my mind). The underlying themes of family and babies are well drawn, even if the characters never quite came to life for me and there are just too many cliches. I would have liked it better if the author could have spun out some of the key moments a little longer, to draw out the emotions underlying them. I generally assign a star rating purely on the basis of my own personal enjoyment (I know, I know, perverse of me, so sue me), and initially, having not enjoying it a great deal and not found much to interest me in either main character, I was prepared to go with three stars. But since finishing it, the characters have stuck in my mind rather, and on balance I’m going to go with four stars.

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Review: ‘Forsaken Kingdom’ by J R Rasmussen

October 27, 2017 Review 0

This book has all the elements of epic fantasy that I’ve poked fun at in the past. You know the sort of thing – the lost heir to the kingdom, the enchanted sword (which has a name, naturally), the school for magic, the trusty sidekicks… I should have hated it, but instead I inhaled it almost at one sitting. Why? Because it’s so much fun. And there are positively no boring bits.

The book starts in the most awesome way imaginable. Wardin Rath is a prince, whose uncle and father have just lost a war. Wardin is the last of his line, and will be the object of the victorious king’s searches until he’s found. And then killed. But Wardin is somewhere very special, the last Magistery in the kingdom, the sole remaining repository for magic in the land. If Wardin is tracked down there, not only his own life will be lost, but the Magistery too, and with it all magical knowledge. So, at the age of just twelve, Wardin does something amazingly heroic: he leaves the Magistery, and allows himself to be caught by his enemy.

Needless to say (because the book would be very short otherwise) he isn’t killed. Instead his memories are magically erased, and he’s held at King Bramwell’s court as a royal tutor. Now, this requires some suspension of disbelief, because Bramwell is a hardnosed warrior and battle campaigner, and his motives for this action are dubious to say the least, but let that pass. Inevitably, the spell is eventually fractured, and so begins the main part of the story, with Wardin, now all grown up, trying to work out just who and what he is as bits of memory drift back to his mind, and eventually returning to the Magistery and his old friends.

I liked Wardin very much, and he’s believable both as the memory-wiped tutor and as the prince who is obviously destined to be a great leader of men (by book 3 of the trilogy, I predict). I liked the two sidekicks, too – Erietta and Arun, twins, and between the three of them they cover all three kinds of magic in this world. Battlemagic is physical, moving things about. Sage magic affects minds. Contrivance is about the imagination. And – here’s the really nice touch – each form has to be ‘balanced’ by its opposite. So battlemages have to do mental work after the expenditure of magic to balance themselves, sages do physical work and contrivers have to do mundane work, like scrubbing floors. This is very elegant.

The world-building isn’t excessive. The map at the front of the book is fairly minimalist, but I suspect that more places may be added as the trilogy progresses. For anyone (like me) who got a bit muddled about the family relationships, there’s a family tree along with a hires map at the Cairdarin website (Cairdarin is the world/continent name). But even if the world itself isn’t quite as detailed as an Ordnance Survey map, everywhere felt totally real and I could picture the settings perfectly in my mind, specially the awesome Magistery, nestled in the mountains, with its secret entrance.

The story rattles along, and there’s absolutely no filler. When Wardin sets off on a journey, there’s no meandering through the scenery, describing every tree and rock in loving detail. No, we jump straight to the next point of action, or sometimes the destination, with barely a moment to catch our breath. Sometimes these transitions felt a bit abrupt, but mostly I was glad to be spared the saggy bits.

As you’d expect, there’s a grand confrontation at the end, resolved very elegantly, which neatly sets the scene for the next book in the trilogy. I can’t wait. Highly recommended for fans of traditional epic fantasy. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Beguilement: The Sharing Knife #1’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

October 5, 2017 Review 6

This is an awesome book. As a fantasy, the setting is brilliantly evoked, so that it feels utterly real, and the magic is suitably intriguing. But don’t be fooled: this is a romance through and through. Apart from a few high-action moments, which are mostly designed to throw our hero and heroine together, the plot is pure romance – the accidental meeting, the turning away because they’re on different sides of the cultural divide, the crisis that unites them, the nursing back to health, the long-drawn-out courtship and so on and so on.

The premise of this world is that there are two kinds of people. One kind has no magic. They’re farmers, living on settled plots of land, patriarchal and with a largely pre-industrial way of life. The other kind, the ones with magic, are called Lakewalkers (because they are constantly moving around the perimeter of the massive lake that defines their world). Their task is to rid the world of malices, immortal entities that suck the life out of humans, animals and plant life, growing stronger and stronger as they do so. The relationship between the two groups is edgy tolerance. The Lakewalkers think the farmers are simple-minded primitives, and the farmers, for their part, are very afraid of the magically-empowered Lakewalkers (as they should be) but they need them for healing and a few other benign purposes, as well as to clear out the malices.

Our representatives from these two groups are Fawn, the farmer, a girl kept ignorant by her upbringing and despised by her family, but driven by a burning curiosity about – well, everything, really. A trait which has got her into some difficulties as the book opens. Dag is the world-weary, seen-it-all Lakewalker, a man with a tragic past who’s something of a renegade even amongst his own people (yes, that old chestnut). Happenstance throws the two together, and when Fawn is drawn into Dag’s battle with a malice, their lives are irrevocably intertwined.

After that battle, the action fades into everyday survival and then travelling together. Inevitably, the two end up getting it on, and the sex is fairly graphic and frequent, so if that’s not your thing, avoid. I don’t mind a certain amount, but once it stops advancing the plot or enlightening the reader about the characters, it ceases to serve any useful purpose, and I felt that was the case here.

And then we came to the culmination of the book – a wedding. The lead-up and actual event went on for chapter after chapter and frankly, if I’d liked the characters less I’d have thrown the book at the wall at this point. Fortunately, I loved both Dag and Fawn. Dag is the kind of world-weary warrior type that I adore – very gentlemanly, and tender with his lover, but a total man’s man in battle. A little too perfect, perhaps, but it worked OK for me. Fawn is a delight, too, neither too shy nor too assertive. They make a good match.

With the clear setup that they will have to secure the approval of both her family and his fellow Lakewalkers to the marriage, the stage is set for two confrontations. But no. We get the visit to the farmers in full measure, and that over-lengthy wedding, but the book ends as the two set off to travel to the Lakewalkers’ camp. With the prospect of another lengthy series of confrontations and perhaps not much forward motion on the fantasy elements, I’m not mad keen to get book 2 in the series. Nevertheless, I loved almost everything about this book. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Terms of Enlistment’ by Marko Kloos

August 26, 2017 Review 1

Oh boy. Military Sci-fi. Not something I would ever choose for myself, but I’ll try anything once. This is a mega-seller, so it must be hitting the spot for a lot of people. I have no point of comparison, but it seems to me like a well-written book of its type.The world-building is superb, and I never once doubted any aspect of it. The military stuff – well, if you like blow-by-blow battles, lots of explosions and guns and general mayhem of the blowing-stuff-up category, and a succession of we’re-all-doomed moments – this book is for you.

The characters? Not much depth, and to be honest I didn’t much care if any of them lived or died, even the hero. There was a love interest of sorts, but not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. But really, that’s not what it’s all about. It’s the set-piece battles that are the stars of the show, that and the technology, and both are very well described without ever being boring or two over-the-top melodramatic. This is a book about a vividly-created future world, every element of it utterly believable, and the dramatic shenanigans that one fairly ordinary recruit finds himself in. If you like military sci-fi, I’m guessing that you’ll love this book. It’s really not my cup of tea, but despite that, I finished it without effort. Three stars.

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Sci-fi mystery review: ‘Gingerbread Man’ by Lee Strauss

July 3, 2017 Review 0

This one took me by surprise. Because I’d downloaded it for free some time back (more than a year ago, in fact), I had no idea why I’d been attracted to it or even what sort of book it was. I simply opened it and began to read, and at first it seemed like fairly standard fare: a college campus, some geeky students doing typical geeky student things, a rape, a murder, bla bla. And then things veered sharply off in a very different direction and I got interested.

It’s not surprising I was confused. The full title is “Gingerbread Man: A Marlow and Sage Mystery Thriller (A Nursery Rhyme Suspense Book 1)”, and the Amazon categories are the expected mystery and thriller variants. But buried in the book’s description is the truth: this is Science Fiction Mystery Romantic Suspense, and it uses the conceit of alternate (or parallel) worlds to drive the plot.

Marlow is the headline geeky student, who befriends fellow student Teagan online. But when they set up a date to meet up, both claim that the other never showed up. And when Marlow bumps into Teagan on campus, she claims not to recognise him. Now this is nicely intriguing stuff, but when there’s a rape, then a murder, and then Teagan disappears, Marlow sets out to find her, and that’s when things get really interesting, and the alternate world business really kicks off.

The problem with alternate worlds is twofold. Firstly, each time there’s a jump, there’s a new setting and new characters to get to know, and although the characters are technically the same, there are enough changes in their backgrounds and upbringing to make them feel very different. The differences are nicely done here, but it still feels like starting all over again. It’s disjointed, jumping directly from an exciting part in a now-familiar setting, and suddenly we’re somewhere else altogether.

The second problem is that the alternate worlds are not always equally interesting. The third world (which it would be spoilerish to describe) is quite interesting, but by that point I just wanted to get back to the action and resolve the Teagan crisis, so any time elsewhere felt like treading water.

There were aspects of the book that I enjoyed very much. The early chapters, where Marlow and Teagan were communicating fine online, but some odd things were happening (like the photos that wouldn’t transmit, and the missed date at the coffee shop), were nicely intriguing, and drew me in beautifully. Once it became obvious what was happening, I lost interest slightly. The sciencey bits were a little clunky, and, as mentioned, not all the alternate worlds were equally interesting.

The characters – well, none of them really grabbed me. I appreciate that the romantic pairing for Marlow is Sage (it’s in the title, for goodness sake), but it seemed to me that he spent almost as much time thinking about and worrying about Teagan. The minor characters never really jumped off the page for me.

And here’s a really trivial detail that tripped me up a lot — the writing style is rather pedestrian. There’s a lot of ‘I did…’ and ‘I went…’ and ‘I ran…’, one after the other, and it got distracting. I really wanted to get in there and reword a few sentences, just for variety. Now, this is partly me being an author myself, so I notice the rhythms of the writing more than someone who’s reading solely for fun, and partly because I’m a nitpicky so-and-so, but it got between me and the story a lot, so I mention it. Ninety nine percent of the population wouldn’t be bothered by it, I’m sure.

I enjoyed this quite a lot, even though it wasn’t what I was expecting. The world-jumping was easy to follow (thank you, author!), the story was eminently readable and the early mysteries were intriguing. However none of the characters stood out, and the pedestrian writing style keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it as a good read for anyone looking for a not-too-complex sci-fi themed mystery.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Royal Companion’ by Tanya Bird

July 2, 2017 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. The author says it’s a romance, and categorises it as medieval and Regency, which niggles at my tidy mind – how can it be both? Regency – no way. It has nothing in common with the historical Regency or fictional representations of it. In fact, I discovered it as an advert on the page of one of my own Regency romances, very out of place among the Pride and Prejudice fan-fiction that’s normally advertised there. But since the ad worked on me, I suppose it’s an effective strategy. But this is definitely not a Regency book.

The medieval part, on the other hand, I can just about see – there’s a king and a whole royal family, there’s a castle, the nobility indulge in boar hunting, archery and tournaments, the usual things. But it’s set in a created world, not part of the real medieval world, and to my mind it is clearly fantasy. So, fantasy romance, then? Well, no. Although this is about two people falling in love and being together despite obstacles, the equivocal ending puts it firmly outside the realm of romance. Let’s call it alternate world fantasy, or just a genre mashup. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The premise: poor farmer’s daughter Aldara is sold by her mother to the obnoxious prince Pandarus, who gives her to his brother Tyron as a Companion. Companions are an interesting concept. On the one hand, their function as royal bed-warmers is a time-honoured and unoriginal one. But they are also trained to be beautiful, talented and adept at conversation, which makes them in some ways comparable to Geisha girls. Aldara finds the transition from independent-minded farm girl to meekly subservient courtesan a difficult one, not helped by Tyron being a reclusive and tortured soul, subject to black moods after action in one of the many border skirmishes plaguing the kingdom.

I found Aldara to be an uneven character. Sometimes she’s behaving with the utmost propriety, curtsying and remembering titles and pretending to be interested in the men’s conversations, as she’s required to do, yet at other times she’s being wildly outrageous, scandalising everyone. I’d have liked to see a little more consistency in her actions, and perhaps a steady progression towards a clearly defined goal. I’m not quite sure, looking back on it now, whether she ever truly accepted her role as Companion or not. It seemed to depend rather a lot on Tyron.

As for Tyron… well, what to say about a hero who causes his love so much grief? Would it have been so hard for him to make some effort to protect her, instead of simply ignoring her? And even when they’re lovers, he doesn’t bother to let her know that he’s safe and well. To be honest, I found his behaviour unforgivable, which is not a word I use lightly. When bad things happen to the heroine, and here the bad things are pretty harrowing, I like to think that the hero would have done everything in his power to prevent the bad things, and that if they happen anyway, it’s because his hands were tied and he was helpless to intervene or protect. But not in this case. Here the supposed hero actually creates the situation where it was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, bad things would happen. So, no, I can’t quite forgive him for that.

Some of the other characters in the book were, in many ways, far more interesting than the two main characters. The retired Companion who trains the new recruits, for instance, is a very complex creation. I’d have liked to see more of the queen and the princess, too, who I felt had more depth than portrayed here. And then there was the younger brother and his archery-champion Companion, who were simply enjoying a pleasant and amicable relationship. That would have been a bit more fun to read about than the darkness around Tyron.

I had a few issues with some of the premises. The idea of a Companion, taking a peasant girl and training her up (in just a few months!) to be a sophisticated and intelligent consort for a prince, able to hold a conversation amongst the nobility, is intriguing but inherently implausible. I couldn’t see any reason why peasant girls were preferred over (say) minor nobility. And then there’s the issue of motivation. Why, for instance, did Aldara’s mother sell her in the first place? They didn’t have so many children that a daughter would be an excessive burden. And why tell her nothing at all about what she is being sold for? That made no sense. Then there was the issue of poverty. I get that the ordinary folks were struggling to survive, but why on earth were servants within the royal estate struggling to survive, to the extent of needing to steal food? Surely the servants would be fed, and fed pretty well, too. And then there was Tyron’s behaviour, which made no sense. Even when he was supposedly falling in love with Aldara, he never cared enough for her to protect her. And why not sleep with her? That was what she was there for!

Some minor quibbles: lots of little typos, like a wide birth, pales of water, and something that was omitting noises. There were intrusive modernisms (to my ear), like sourcing food, or the need for personal space. Sometimes modern insertions like this are done for effect, but I found they just jarred me out of the pseudo-medieval setting.

This was an interesting and unusual read that would perhaps do better marketed as literary fantasy. I applaud the author’s attempt to explore a refreshingly different setting and some unusual characters. Despite all my quibbles, I found it fascinating, because I never quite knew what was going to happen. The weaknesses in the characters and the unsatisfying ending keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different.

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Mystery review: ‘A Case of Conspiracy in Clerkenwell’ by Clara Benson

June 28, 2017 Review 0

Book 3 of the new Christie-esque murder mystery series by the author, featuring Freddy Pilkington-Soames rather than Angela Marchmont, which gives the books a very different flavour. Angela was very much a lady, so her sleuthing was conducted over cups of tea and genteel dinner parties, whereas Freddy is a man about town, and there’s a certain amount of creeping about in the middle of the night, and he gets physical from time to time. Unlike Angela, there’s no mysterious past to be gradually revealed, and Freddy’s very much London-based. I’m rather hoping he’ll escape the town setting at some stage; I miss the country house setting of so many of Angela’s stories.

However, this outing for Freddy has a good array of eccentric characters in the ladies of the Temperance Society and the (mostly) gentlemen of the Communist Alliance, who share the same local community hall. When one of the ladies is stabbed with a paper knife, Freddy is roped in by British Intelligence to investigate both the murder and a revolutionary plot.

I never quite got the communists straight in my head, so I had very little clue what was going on there, but it didn’t matter much. The plot unfolds in the regular way, with a great deal of dry humour, Freddy’s usual willing but bumbling style and some implausible drama at the end, before all is revealed, plots are foiled and the day is saved. I’m not a big fan of the spies-and-revolutions theme of this series, and I’d much rather return to the body-in-the-library country house style, but this is still a totally enjoyable read. Four stars.

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Fiction review: ‘Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight’ by Alexandra Fuller

June 12, 2017 Review 0

Another book group read that I would never, ever have chosen for myself, but I enjoyed it, on the whole. It’s a memoir, describing the author’s life growing up in Africa in the 70’s and 80’s, a time of great transition, including civil war, land seizures and the gradual erosion of white dominance. It’s an unflinching look at the realities of daily life for one extraordinary family, for whom the word disfunctional was probably invented. For me, it was uncomfortably too unflinching, but one has to admire the author’s clear vision of the reality of the times – the casual racism, the poverty, and dear lord, the many and various horrible ways to die or (if you were very, very lucky) merely be extremely ill, repeatedly.

The greatest triumph of the book is the glorious evocation of Africa in all its physicality. To say you felt as if you were there doesn’t quite do it justice. The lyrical passages describing the scenery, the wildlife, the plants and smells and sounds of the continent are exquisite, but towards the end of the book I did begin to tire of them just a little. The people are described more by their actions than anything else (and very odd they were too, sometimes).

The story-telling is episodic, and reads as though the author simply made a list of all the most memorable events of her childhood, and then fleshed each one out to a greater or lesser degree. Some are very short indeed, and it makes the book feel quite jerky and choppy. There are some pretty tragic events, too, so be warned.

There was a lot more I would have liked to know, especially about the family – what sort of background did they come from? Why were they in Africa at all? And why did they think the children were better off living with all the dangers of driving through mine-fields to go to school, for instance, when they could have been safe at boarding school in Britain? Nevertheless, this was a fascinating read. Four stars.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Rivers of Hell’ by Marina Finlayson

May 25, 2017 Review 0

This is the third of the Shadows of the Immortals series, and it’s another action-packed and dramatic installment. This one is, as you might suspect from the title, set in the underworld, as Lexi and friends try to remove the magical collars that restrict the powers of god Apollo and Lexi’s cat-shifter friend, Syl. As always, there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, and Lexi and hot fireshaper Jake inch a little closer towards the inevitable romance.

Now, I’m going to be honest. I’ve never read a bad book by Finlayson yet, and this one doesn’t break that winning streak. It’s the usual well-written roller-coaster ride, lurching from one crisis to the next, yet always in a way that makes total sense within this world, and with that trade-mark Aussie humour – lovely! But…

It lacks many of the elements that made the previous two books amongst my favourite reads. Lexi’s ability to communicate with animals, for instance, which produced some creative moments in the first two books, is very muted in the underworld (with one glorious exception). Then there are those delightful thought-conversations with cat-Syl, which so enchanted me. None of that here. And finally, that tantalising backstory about Lexi’s mum – where is she? Why is everything different in her home town? I really, really, really wanted to know about that, and with Lexi stuck in the underworld, that didn’t happen. All of this is perfectly understandable, but disappointing.

So this was still a very enjoyable read, and highly recommended, but for my personal choice, I’d have liked a touch less relentless action and a little more of the quirky charm. Four stars.

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Review: ‘Dark Voyage’ by Alan Furst

May 25, 2017 Review 0

My book group throws up a mixed bag of reading materials, and I never quite know what I’m going to get. This one seemed most unpromising at first glance: a war-era story of spies and secret missions aboard a Dutch freighter commandeered by British intelligence. Um… not really my thing. But after I chickened out of a few, I’m determined to have a crack at everything from now on so I settled down to read.

And (surprise!) I really enjoyed it. It’s very much a boy’s own adventure, with lots of creeping about in the dark, secretly repainting the ship to disguise it (not an easy task), and never quite knowing who is on who’s side or what the ultimate objective is. There are some truly thrilling moments steering through minefields or arriving at a neutral port to find that it’s changed allegiance overnight. There are also laugh-out-loud funny moments, as when the supposed Spanish captain (in fact a very lowly crew member) is produced for the benefit of a German U-boat, and turns out to be gloriously drunk. I didn’t follow all the wartime nuances, but it didn’t much matter.

The main character, phlegmatic Dutchman Eric DeHaan, resignedly does everything that’s asked of him, even the obviously suicide-mission final job, in the desire to do his bit for the war effort. His motley crew of many nationalities goes along with it too, in the main, with only a couple making a run for freedom. There’s a gratuitous little romance, which never really rang true, and an oddly unexplained spy who’s important enough to be ferried around Europe, but then vanishes again at the end (this is a motif of the author’s, apparently, and the character turns up in multiple books). And although I’m far from an expert, the historical and nautical details were utterly convincing to me. An enjoyable read. Four stars.

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