The Great Hedge Of India

By Roy Moxham

Rating: 4 stars

This was a random find in my favourite second hand bookshop in Glasgow. I know embarrassingly little about my ancestral homeland, even during the period that the British ruled it. Like the author, I initially thought this would be an interesting diversion to find a harmless eccentricity of the Victorian era. Along with him, I learned that it was anything but. That it was the visible symbol of a terribly unfair and hated tax that killed far too many people.

Moxham alternates chapters between his search for the hedge, with the history of the customs line that it protected and the salt tax that it enforced. The historical chapters don’t skimp on showing the horrors that were inflicted on Indians in the name of collecting this tax, even when there was famine and no ability to pay. The book also details the effects of salt deprivation, which isn’t something that I really knew anything about (indeed, in the modern era, the worry is not too little, but too much salt) and although he makes it clear that salt deprivation doesn’t result in any cravings for salt, in the way that dehydration results in the craving for water, I had the urge to go and eat something salty. Just in case.

In the modern-day chapters, Moxham reveals himself to be an amiable, if sometimes single-minded, sort of chap. He did, after all, spend three successive years travelling to India to search for remnants of the hedge, and hundreds of man-hours back in Britain poring over documents and maps trying to figure out its route and history. His journey through India is evocative and engaging, as he finds dead end after dead end. His perseverance is impressive in the face of repeated failures.

The one thing that the book could have done with is some pictures. Although Moxham describes his travels well, some photographs and more maps would have been welcome. But other than that, a fascinating detective story unearthing an almost forgotten artefact of the British occupation of India.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841192604

The High King (The Chronicles of Prydain #5)

By Lloyd Alexander

Rating: 4 stars

The last book of the Prydain Chronicles seems to go full circle. With The Book of Three I complained that it all felt a bit Tolkien-light. This also feels in many ways like The Lord of the Rings, but in a different way. We have the confrontation with the Dark Lord, the end of the days of magic and the passing into the West the Summer Country of the great heroes.

Prince Gwydion was ambushed and the magic sword Dyrnwyn taken from him. The companions of old must now gather their forces and ready themselves for the final battle against the Death Lord.

Taran is now unrecognisable from the lad who wanted nothing more than to go adventuring at the start of The Book of Three. He’s grown and tempered and now has to return to the friends he made in the previous book to raise an army to assault Arawn. The death toll of named characters is pretty high, with several not making it to the final chapters. We also get closure for characters who appeared previously – the former giant, Glew; the steward Magg; and the witch-queen Achren. Some get redemption, some get a noble death and some get what’s coming to them.

The final chapters are the most Lord of the Rings-like to me, as everyone suddenly packs up and leaves for the Summer Country, which I’m not sure has been mentioned before, or if it was, then only in passing several books ago. That sort of came from nowhere, unlike LotR, where it was foreshadowed from very early on. It does sort of fit with the style of story being told, so I’m willing to let it go.

In the end, I think that this was a satisfying conclusion to Taran’s story. We finally get to find out why The Book of Three is called that; Princess Eilonwy finally gets to be active and take part in things; and Dallben gets to show off some of his magic. A bittersweet but appropriate end to a series that started off wobbly but which has improved throughout.

Book details

ISBN: 9780006714996
Publisher: Armada Lions
Year of publication: 1979

The Red House Mystery

By A.A. Milne

Rating: 4 stars

I had been completely unaware of A. A. Milne’s work beyond Winnie the Pooh until a chance reference to this on, of all places, File 770. I was intrigued and when I found out it was out of copyright and available on Project Gutenberg, I grabbed it, and I’m glad I did.

It’s a locked room mystery, with our amateur detective, Anthony Gillingham, wandering on to the scene by coincidence, just after the death of the brother of Mark Ablett, the owner of the titular Red House. We follow Anthony as he gets to grips with the people and the events, with his friend Bill as the Watson to his Holmes.

The book had actually kicked off from the point of view of the housemaid, and I’d wondered if we were going to going to get something more understanding of the household staff, but after that first chapter, they are left far behind. Although incidentally, I do think there’s an interesting story to be told from that angle – after all, in this period, who notices the servants? I had high hopes of the film Gosford Park for this, but it was more interested in the upstairs/downstairs social shenanigans than the mystery angle.

But putting that to one side and taking it as it was, I enjoyed this a lot. There was enough information revealed to the reader at the same time as the protagonist that I could keep coming up with the same sort of theories that Anthony was and although it was fairly clear who the murderer was fairly early on, the how and the why were left to the final chapter, as in any good whodunnit.

I enjoyed Anthony as a protagonist. He was a fun character and I sort of wish that Milne had written more stories with him. The idea of someone getting an inheritance and then using it to take on all sorts of careers, keeping them up for as long as he wanted, tobacconist and waiter being but two of his former professions, and having the security to move on when it stopped being fun. I think many people would envy that. It also helps that he’s a really nice chap too.

So an enjoyable whodunnit, well told and set in the heart of the Edwardian period (or the modern day, as it would have been at the time). He’s not written an awful lot of other novels, but off the back of this, I’d definitely be interested in seeking some of his others out.

Book details

Publisher: Project Gutenberg
Year of publication: 1999

Hilda and the Bird Parade

By Luke Pearson

Rating: 4 stars

The third volume of Hilda’s adventures sees her and her mother move from the wilderness to the city of Trolberg, where her mother freaks out a bit and keeps her from the outdoor explorations and freedom that she’s used to. She does get out, with kids from her new school, but doesn’t find their games to her taste. So she befriends a talking raven, runs away from a rat king and gets lost.

This is just as sweet and fun as the previous volumes with some great visual gags. Recommended for all ages (along with the Netflix animated TV series of the same name).

Book details

ISBN: 9781911171027
Publisher: Flying Eye Books
Year of publication: 2016

Gobbelino London & a Scourge of Pleasantries

By Kim M. Watt

Rating: 4 stars

Gobbelino London is a talking cat, something his human, Callum didn’t blink an eye at. Now they’re a PI team trying to eek out a living between the human and Fay worlds in Leeds and have a new case on their hands which will see them in somewhat more peril than they expect for a case that involves finding a missing book.

As much as I like whimsy and fluff, I found Watt’s Beaufort Scales books a little too twee for my tastes, but I enjoyed this an awful lot. While I’m much more a dog person than a cat person, who doesn’t love a snarky talking cat? Watt sketches out a surprising amount of world-building in a fairly short book, and left me with quite the unease at the Watch and some of their shadier practices.

This book told a satisfying story in its own right and also set up a bunch of stuff for future instalments. I liked Gobbelino and Callum, as well as the awesome Queen-Empress (or was it Empress-Queen?) of the rats, Susan. It was a lot of fun and I’ll definitely be picking up future volumes in the series soon.

Book details

Year of publication: 2020

Gods of Jade and Shadow

By Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Rating: 4 stars

Casiopea Tun is a young woman who just wants to dive headfirst into what the Jazz Age of the 1920s has to offer. But with her father dead, she and her mother have had to return to the family home and the tyrannical rule of her grandfather, with floors to scrub and shirts to repair. But when she accidentally releases an ancient Mayan death-god from captivity, she begins a journey that will take her across the country and show her the wonders she’s always wanted.

This is an evocative book – very clearly bringing to mind the harsh sun and thriving cities of Mexico as we travel alongside Casiopea seeing the hidden and mythic sights of the country, and its perils. It’s a travelogue and a bildungsroman as Casiopea learns to set aside the instincts to control her anger and remain humble and to grow as a person. Alongside her is the death-god Hun-Kamé, connected to her by a shard of bone embedded in her finger, on a quest to reclaim his lost throne.

I’m really unfamiliar with the mythologies of the Americas so while the deities and mythological creatures are unfamiliar to me as tropes, Moreno-Garcia is able to bring them to life and sketch in the details that we need. That impresses me, since she can’t rely of cultural shorthands, knowing that that the reader would be familiar with what she means, but she doesn’t turn it into an infodump.

Casiopea remains an engaging and stout-hearted protagonist throughout, and while the climax surprised me, perhaps it shouldn’t have done, knowing what I do (and what was said in the book) about the Mayan fondness for blood.

An enjoyable story about a culture that I don’t know nearly enough about. I’m glad that stories like this are in the world, helping deal with that shortcoming in an entertaining and engaging way.

Book details

ISBN: 9781529402643

The Thursday Murder Club (Thursday Murder Club #1)

By Richard Osman

Rating: 3 stars

I nearly gave up on this book under a quarter of the way through. I just wasn’t enjoying it very much. I found the main characters pretty cardboard, the villain of the piece was completely pantomime and the writing was so-so. I thought to myself that if it didn’t improve by the 100 page mark, I’d give up. I pushed on even past the quarter way limit I’d set and eventually it settled down a bit and I started to enjoy it.

Elizabeth, Joyce, Ron and Ibrahim are residents of a well to do retirement village in the picturesque English countryside, whose hobby is to look over old police files trying to spot clues that were missed in the original investigation. Then there’s a murder right on their doorstep and they’ve got a hot case to deal with, rather than their usual cold ones.

The book is structured with lots of very short chapters (possibly designed for people who don’t usually read books and who bought it purely on the back of the author’s fame. Cynical? Moi?). Some are first person as Joyce’s diary, while the rest are third person, usually following one or two of the cast as they go about detecting. It’s never made clear why we get these “diary extracts” but it does help you sympathise with Joyce. I’m going to skip past Elizabeth’s very convenient past as some sort of superspy which gives her many favours that she can call in and lots of spycraft and contacts because, well, at that point you’ve just got to accept the conceit and move on.

One thing the book does well, especially later on, is show you the realities of old age. Of the ever-present fear that this spring could be the last you’ll see. That your partner of so long is starting to lose their facilities, that you shouldn’t really get a young dog, now should you? There’s a lot of melancholy, but also the warmth of a long and fulfilled life. That picture into ageing is, for me, really the USP on this book, since, as a mystery, it leaves something to be desired. I really don’t think you could have solved the case on your own, since to do so requires information that the reader isn’t given, until it’s revealed in appropriately dramatic fashion.

So the characterisation of the heroes improves, and it becomes a light, entertaining read. The villain does remain pretty pantomime throughout though. I enjoyed it well enough, but have no desire to pick up any future books in the series.

Book details

ISBN: 9780241988268
Publisher: Penguin
Year of publication: 2021

The Privilege of Peace (Peacekeeper #3)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 4 stars

First, and to get it out of the way, the cover (the one with Torin leaning over what appears to be a dying Alamber, and another di’Taykan slumped in the background) isn’t a reflection of any scene in the book. I don’t know where illustrator Paul Youll pulled that from, but we don’t have to suffer Torin having to watch Alamber die.

So what do they actually get up to, if not being shot? The first half of the book is spent mostly on setup, showcasing the widening of the Strike Team programme within the Justice Department and how the teams are integrating and working together, as well as the wider politics of the Confederation – now that the war is over, many people are clamouring for the Younger Races to be grounded (literally – at the bottom of gravity wells on planets) until they lose some of their violent tendencies. Alongside that, we get the continuing adventures of Humans First, as they pirate and pillage through a xenophobic strop that just points out the validity of locking them in their rooms until they grow up.

It’s only about half way through that the two big set pieces of the book kick in – an incident with the Silsviss, who Torin helped bring into the Confederation; and the return of Big Yellow. This is handled deftly, as they split the party and head to both situations at once. Huff is very good at interweaving the two stories, not spending too long with any one, and constantly shifting points of view to keep the action moving.

While I think that the final resolution to both the plot in this book and that of the wider series has a whiff of deus ex machina about it, and I’ve never been fond of the plastic aliens, I still enjoyed this a lot. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a series carefully built up over the previous seven books. We get to see different sides of Torin over that span and get to know the team around her in the last three. I’ve always had a soft spot for Alamber (hence my leading with him not dying) and I’m glad to see him getting a chance to develop and take a big step here as well.

It’s been a pleasure following Staff/Gunnery Sergeant/Warden Kerr over the course of her adventures and I’m pleased with how her story, her whole team’s story, has ended.

Book details

ISBN: 9781785656699

A Peace Divided (Peacekeeper, #2)

By Tanya Huff

Rating: 3 stars

Having given up freelancing and become Wardens of the Confederation (the space police, basically), Torin and her team are sent to a planet where a group of archaeologists are being held hostage by a group of extremists looking for an ancient weapon that they could use against the sentient plastic that started and maintained the war between the Confederation and the Primacy for centuries. And since the kidnappers are composed of both Confederation and Primacy species, Torin has to take a group of Primacy in her team as well.

I found this book quite annoying. The main plot driver just didn’t make sense to me – you find some plastic in a latrine of a pre-industrial civilisation and my first thought is not that they obviously found a weapon to use against the sentient plastic. This is a galaxy with many, many spacefaring civilisations, some of them very old indeed. How do you know one of them didn’t just stop off for a picnic or something? And then you’ve got Torin’s huge leap of logic right at the end of the book about what happened to the dead race under investigation. And the annoying thing is that I bet she’s right, but only because she’s being a spokesperson for the author, not because it makes any sense at all.

The usual supporting cast are all present and correct, but the new Primacy group added to the team don’t really get a lot of characterisation and I struggled to remember who each of them were and what their important relationships were, and also what they looked like a lot of the time (although this last point is true of the main cast too).

In this one, the human extremist group Humans First (they’ve dropped the apostrophe by now) are still driving events, which is wearying, but the point bears repeating – concepts of “us” and “them” are entirely malleable and prone to changing. In a post-Trump, post-Brexit world, this shouldn’t need reinforcing, but it constantly does.

So not the best of the series, but I’ve already got the next, and last, book lined up. The cover illustration of my edition better not be a spoiler…

Book details

ISBN: 9781785656675
Publisher: Titan Books
Year of publication: 2019

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