Book Spines at a site for book reviews and reading ideas for adults
The Book Gnome
The Book Gnome, a site for book reviews and reading ideas for adults

Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 27 August 2017

In the second book of the Gormenghast Trilogy, Mervyn Peake demonstrates a mastery of the english language and story telling that is breathtaking. His flair for words combined with his fertile and macabre imagination, makes this book, yet another that is hard to put down.

The fantastical tale of of the inhabitants of the Gormenghast Castle continues with the community adjusting to the disappearance of Lord Sepulchrave while Lord Titus grows from child to a young man, torn by his desire to be his own person and his responsibility as the 77th Earl.

Lord Titus and his sister Lady Fuschia are both complex, engaging characters. The reader is quickly caught up with the siblings' hopes, insecurities, and fears, which are as compelling a part of the narrative as the plot. The book is not only a page turner with unexpected twists as Steerpike continues to progress his evil ambitions, but deeply emotional with the characters evoking genuine empathy from the readers as they encounter very difficult moments in their lives.

Gormenghast is a masterpiece. This is a book that will stand the test of time.

The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 19 August 2017

Ned Beauman's second novel demonstrates his skill as an author as clearly as does his first. It also demonstrates his maturation as an author.

The plot is more complex and the language more intense. The subject matter is more daring and the themes are more cutting. Hard as it is to believe, his skills as an author have improved.

The characters in the book wrestle with the age-old questions of love, loss, sex, commitment, and integrity in an intricate plot that spans continents as their interconnected lives develop. The setting is the world of the theatre from 1931 to post war, hedonism in a time when Nazism has driven the world to war, something which bypasses some characters because they are so caught up with their own personal wars.

What seems like a fairly straighforward theatrical disaster, the Teleportation Device, is slowly revealed to be much more, both literally and metaphorically. The deaths are not really deaths, and the accident is actually not an accident. Carefully and cautiously, the author reveals the truth to the reader in an elegant and entrancing narrative with human intent and emotion exposed in all its duplicity.

Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 12 August 2017

Sheba is 40 and Connolly is 15. She is a teacher and he is a student. There are so many reasons why it should not happen but it does and it is complicated, very complicated.

Connolly pursues Sheba forcefully, refusing to be put off by her insistence that his feelings for her are not appropriate. She forbids him from visiting her in her classroom but when he doesn't, she misses him. He stays away for a while each time but always returns eventually, and his persistence pays off. Finally she relents, first letting him kiss her then having full penetrative sex.

Should we condemn Sheba like everyone else does when details of the affair comes out? While Connolly is underage, he is fully aware of what he is doing and suffers no harm from the relationship, in fact, quite the opposite.

The book poses some difficult questions for the reader to consider. It considers the gap that can exist between the law and justice, as well as what it means to accept responsibility for one's actions. The narrative is compelling and the characters are arresting. It is an easy and engaging book to read.

Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 8 August 2017

It is the 1970s, and Adele, a young girl from Liverpool, talks her way into university. Having not put the necessary work in at school, her grades are not good enough on their own, but she does not want to fall into a life of school then marriage of children. She has aspirations. She wants to be someone.

Adele's life as a child was turned upside down when the father that she adored, committed suicide. She is also troubled by the fact that she had an older sister who died before she was born. Adele is a complex person who has a good idea of what she doesn't want but little idea of what she does want.

At university, she meets people from a wide range of backgrounds and watches as university life changes them. Bobby is out at university but hides his sexuality at home, Gillian transforms from an naive music student into an ardent socialist, and Evie ... well, you need to read the book.

In this book, Linda Grant captures the idealism of youth certain they understand the world better than their elders. In addition, she successfully portrays the hedonism they embrace as they acquire the freedom of adulthood in an environment free from parents or supervision. The book is well written and entertaining.

Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 4 August 2017

Titus Groan is the first book in the Gormenghast Trilogy by British author Mervyn Peake. This fantasy series tells the bizzare tales of the strange inhabitants of Castle Gormenghast, a sprawling, decaying, convuluted, medieval edifice of numerous rooms and endless corridors.

"The crumbling castle, looming among the mists, exhaled the season, and every cold stone breathed it out" is home to the Groan family and servants. The birth of Titus, son of Lord Sepulchrave the 76th Earl of Groan, starts a series of events that upturn life at the castle, events that are helped along by the scheming of ambitous Steerpike, a young kitchen boy. Lady Fuschia, daughter of his lordship, has outgrown her Nannie Slagg and does not relate to her mother Countess Gertrude so turns to Dr. Prunesquallor for guidance as her father changes, and a long run feud between Mr Flag, the servant of his lordship, and the cook Abiatha Swelter, runs its violent course.

Peake's writing and imagination are exceptional. His vivid prose describing the medieval castle and its strange, captivating, and weird inhabitants is a fantasy masterpiece.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 29 July 2017

A 15-year old boy Michael falls in love with a woman, old enough to be his mother, and they begin an affair which he hides from his family and friends. He falls in love, oganising his life around her, until one day she simply disappears.

He is bereft, unable to understand why the woman, Hanna, has left him. She is in his mind at all times, and even though he gets used to her leaving him, memories of her are easily triggered bringing pain and pleasure. Into adulthood, he finds he compares every relationship with Hanna.

As part of his law studies at university, he attends the trial of a group of women who worked in the concentration camps of World War II, held responsible for allowing a group of women camp inmates to be burned alive. Hanna is one of the woman on trial. Michael is caught between his strong condemnation of the crimes and the woman he loved as a boy.

The book is easy to read posing difficult questions. It presents people as capable of deep love at the some time as doing great horrors. It explores whether one can every really know a person. It is a provocative read.

Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 25 July 2017

Kevin Broom, nicknamed "Fishy" because he suffers from a rare condition that means he smells of rotting fish, runs after-hours errands for the wealthy property developer Grublock who, like Kevin, collects Nazi memorabilia.

When Grublock is killed, Kevin goes in search of the Jewish boxer Seth Roach mentioned by the property developer, uncovering a complex story involving a letter from Adolf Hitler to the eugenics-obsessed entomologist Dr Erskine thanking him for his "kind tribute".

Kevin discovers a world linking rabbis, fascists, invented languages, beetles with swastikas, murder, Hitler, and new towns, and the details of a doomed love affair between Dr Erskine and Seth Roach with tragic consequences.

The 1930s are wonderfully evoked, and the unpredictable characters are well-constructed and appealling making it easy for the reader to care what happens to them. This debut novel engages the reader emotionally and intellectually with its compelling drama and complicated themes. It is an extremely well written.

Country of the Blind by Christopher Brookmyre
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 19 July 2017

Country of the Blind, Christopher Brookmyre's second novel, continues the escapades of the journalist, Jack Parlabane, who like a night light attacts insects, attracts danger, corruption, and crime.

Sarah, engaged to Jack, not wanting to be a young widow, has made him promise to give up his dangerous, sometimes illegal, approach to uncovering a story, for a life of married bliss and a conventional journalistic career.

When a media magnate and Tory partner donor is murdered, four men found running away from the scene are charged with committing the crime. The case against the men looks solid but something doesn't seem right to Jack who is drawn into investigating the crime, and uncovers corruption and assassination at high levels, proves the men's innocence in the process and rescues one of the men's lawyers from being killed, not once but twice.

The book is yet another rollercoaster ride of emotions laced with Christopher Brookmyre's dark, witty sense of humour. It is as good, if not better, than his first book. Brookmyre is both a skilled author and story teller.

Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 14 July 2017

Reading the first two pages, I was concerned that the book was handling the taking of drugs inappropriately, presenting it as a positive, harmless experience. Boy, was I wrong, so wrong.

Patrice Lawrence knows not only how to tell a story but how to engage the reader with sensitive, complex subjects like drug taking and violence. Right from the outset the reader in hooked on the plot and the themes of the book.

Marlon, 16 years old and a well-behaved, studious young man, finds himself caught up in a web of crime and drugs, through no fault of his own. He chooses not to tell his mother for fear of worrying her and convinvinced he can sort matters out on his own. The result of his decision is that his mother misinterprets what she sees, thinking Marlon is going the same way as his older brother, Andre, who became a school dropout and gang member.

Once I started the book, it was hard to put it down, and when I finished it, I wanted more. This is a book that will not only entertain young adults while encouraging them to think very seriously about some of the challenges they face, from recreational drug use to when to confide in the adults supporting them.

Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 6 July 2017

Published in 1996, Quite Ugly One Morning was Christopher Brookmyre's debut novel. It was deservedly well-received both by critics and readers alike.

The novel is frequently described as a crime thriler but it is, in fact, much more mixing an action-packed narrative with cutting satire, black humour, and social commentary directed at post-Thatcherite Scotland.

The novel is set in Scotland, the author's home, and features Jack Parlabane, a journalist who seems to invite trouble then making it considerably worse. Jack has a knack of detecting the crooked with an approach to the ethics of journalism and the law that can be best described as flexible, justified by his ability to unearth the crimes of the respectable.

In quite Ugly One Morning, Jack uncovers the serial murders organised for profit by a self-made man with powerful political friends. In the course of exposing the respectable criminal, Jack puts his own life, and several others, in danger. The compelling plot is enriched by the author's dark humour and satire. It remains an excellent read.

The Dark Circle by Linda Grant
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 28 June 2017

Until the widespread availability of antibiotics and vaccines, TB killed thousands and thousands, young, old, rich, poor, famous or ordinary. It did not discriminate. The book spans the period from before to after treatment.

The story starts well with a witty incident where the brother and sister protaganists, East End twins Lenny and Miriam Lynskey, are involved in a fracas with a fascist in Hyde Park, followed shortly by the discovery that both have TB. With the recent creation of the NHS, they are moved to a top of the range sanatorium in the country side where the bulk of the story takes place.

There is no doubt that Linda Grant is a talented author, having proved herself with previous novels, but in my opinion, this is not one of her best. The writing shows her usual flair but the characters lack depth. At no point, did I find myself engaging with Miriam and Lenny, or other key characters introduced along the way, with one exception, Uncle Manny, and he does not feature much in the novel.

The Dark Circle disappointed me possibly because I have so enjoyed Linda Grant's other novels. It is not one that I would recommend as in my opinion, she has written many better books.

Precious and Grace by Alexander McCall Smith
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 10 June 2017

Precious and Grace is the 17th book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency starring Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi, co-directors of the agency.

In this book, their partneship is tested in a new way, by a new case where the ladies come to very different conclusions about the evidence and participants. Each of the ladies is convinced she is correct until the close of the book where the truth is revealed.

A lady walks into the agency looking to find the nanny who took care of her before she left Botswana 30 years before. The search begins for the nanny, and the two ladies follow very different paths based on their views of the motives of the people involved.

The book is filled with the usual humour and charm that characterises the series. The characters remain endearing and the stories appealling. Precious and Grace is as successful as the previous 16 books and as much pleasure to read. Fans of Alexander McCall Smith like me, will not be disappointed.

A Fish Caught in Time: The Search for the Coelacanth by Samantha Weinberg
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 26 May 2017

There is something captivating about this small book. Even though it is not brilliantly written, it is extremely hard to put it down such that many people will read it in one go.

The story starts when on 23 December 1938, when museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer discoveres a strange fish among the catch of a local angler. She did not know what she had found but sensed it was different so contacted for Rhodes University ichthyologist, J. L. B. Smith. Eventually he made contact and announced with great excitement that he believed it to be a fish thought to have gone extinct 66 million years ago.

The race then began to find the live fish. Dead specimens appeared at intervals allowing further study of the prehistoric fish but it wasn't until 1952 that a live fish was found off the Comoro islands.

The story is filled with disappointment and politics keeping the reader on tenter hooks until Smith finally tracks down the home of this fascinating living fossil. It is a wonderful story that supercedes any flaws of the book.

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 23 May 2017

The book focuses on the starkly dissimilar experiences of French sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, during the occupation of France in the Second World War.

The death of their mother affects them each quite differently setting the scence for how they respond to the war, one wanting to lie low and protect those around her, and the other wanting to find a way to fight the occupation. Neither fully understands each other. They haven't spoken honestly to each other for years and harbour resentments built on misunderstandings.

The story is a dramatic reminder of how much many people suffered during the war, and how bravely, actually heroically, so many responded. The actions of the younger sister are based on a real person, a Belgian woman who worked as part of the French underground putting her life a great risk to save the lives of others.

The writing is awkward but the plot is engaging and intense ensuring the reader will want to keep turning page after page until the end making the book a worthwhile read.

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 4 May 2017

It is 1893, a time when an interest in the sciences, especially palaeontology, is on the rise. Darwin had published his book 'On the Origin of Species' in 1859, and evidence in the form of fossils, was growing steadily.

Cora Seaborne's husband is a violent bully, so when he dies, she isn't sad but relieved, and sets about creating a new life for herself doing the things that interest her, the things that make her happy. She is a keen naturalist with a strong interest in fossils so starts by moving out of London to Colchester in Essex looking for space, fresh air, and nature, accompanied by her socially awkward, obssessive 14 year old son Francis.

When Cora hears rumours that a magical beast has been spotted along the coast in Aldwinter, she is excited by the idea of an undiscovered species. She has no time for religion and superstition, so rejects the view of many of the local people that it is the return of a mysterious, magical beast, known as 'The Essex Serpent'.

When she starts her search, she meets William Ransome, the vicar of Aldwinter, and the intense friendship that develops, drives the story as they both grapple with the hunt for 'The Essex Serpent'.

Love in a Blue Time by Hanif Kureishi
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 4 April 2017

Love in a Blue Time is Hanif Kureishi's first collection of short stories. The ten stories in the collection explore identity in terms of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in London stretching from the !970s to the 1990s, and range from shocking to humourous.

Hanif Kureishi shows a keen understanding of people, their motives and folly of people. In "My Son the Fanatic" he considers the radicalisation of a young British muslim, in "We are not Jews" he tackles racism and bullying through the story of a young boy from a mixed race marriage, in "In a Blue Time" he looks at seedy lives of people trapped in a cycle of avoiding adulthood through alochol and drugs disappointed and broken in post-Thatherite Britain. He offers his readers a surreal, macabre parable in "The Flies" and a short black comedy in "The Tale of the Turd" in which a 44-year-old wastrel goes to dinner at the home of his 18- year-old girlfriend's respectable parents.

The stories are wry, sensitive, provocative, original, realistic, troubling, and brilliant. Most importantly, the are a fine example of how effective and entertaining the short story can be in the hands of a talented author.

50 reasons people give for believing in god by Guy P. Harrison
reviewed by Ken Surridge, 3 April 2017

This book is unusual for a book on atheism because of its style. Rather than the usual combative or scientific approach, he adopts a gentle, conversational style in which he responds respectfully but firmly to fifty of the most common reasons people cite for their belief in god. Most books advocating atheism or critcising religion are likely to make theists bristle with animosity, this book removes all the causes of this reaction bar one - it argues that atheism is the only logical, consistent conclusion when critically examining religion.

Harrison explains each of the fifty reasons from near-death experiences to the religious testimony of influential people, then raises questions or presents alternative explanations demonstrating the weaknesses of the claim that lead to scepticism. He shows convincingly that none of the fifty reasons present a solid, rational basis for a belief in a god or gods.

Harrison's arguments are clear and concise avoiding complex scientific or philosophical arguments, so they can be understood by the widest audience possible. The book is useful, informative and a good read.

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Visit KS Learning for notes and articles on Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë to assist with A level English Literature revision, essays and coursework.

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