A Narrow Door

By Joanne Harris

Rating: 3 stars

Rebecca Buckfast (and living in Scotland, I’m sorry, but I can’t take her seriously with a name like “Buckfast”) has finally made it to the top – she’s now head teacher at St Oswald’s, formerly a boys-only grammar school, she introduces girls to the school, hoping that they will come to stride through the wide arches, not have to quietly enter through a “narrow door”, the way she did. Becky has secrets in her past, and when confronted, she settles down to tell elderly Latin master Roy Straitly her story, as she rediscovered it herself.

I found this book very readable, which is interesting, given how much I disliked most of the characters. Most of the book is in the form of Becky telling the story of what happened 17 years previously, when she was a young teacher at a different, nearby private school, King Henry’s. Becky’s brother, a student at King Henry’s, disappeared when she was a young child, something which affected her parents dreadfully, and which Becky herself found so traumatic that she buried the memory so deeply, that it’s only twenty-odd years later that they start to re-emerge.

Between her own trauma, her overbearing boyfriend, Dominic, and the missing brother, there are layers upon layers of secrets and lies, which get peeled back, one at a time, all being told the ailing Straitly, who was, I felt, the most relatable character in the whole book. Sometimes, I wonder if I’ll end up like him – a ghost haunting the halls of my University, mumbling about people and departments long gone, yet tolerated, even treated fondly by the new guard.

Apparently there are other books about St Oswald’s, featuring Straitly, but this is perfectly standalone and I hadn’t read any of them before reading this one, and I was able to follow what was going on, although some events were mentioned in passing that I assume were expanded upon in the other books.

It’s a very well done thriller, which kept me turning the page to find out what happens next. All the twists and turns were unexpected (to me) and all believable. As I say, I didn’t like many of the characters, but it was a well told tale. Recommending for breaking the glass ceiling, by whatever means necessary.

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The Revisionists

By Thomas Mullen

Rating: 2 stars

Zed, going by the alias Troy Jones, is a time traveller, sent back to ensure that dissidents from his own time don’t save civilisation now, thereby preventing his own “Perfect Present” from being formed. But what is Zed keeping from himself, and how are a corporate lawyer, a washed-out spook and a foreign diplomat’s maid involved?

While the book zipped along at a reasonable pace, I’m afraid that I didn’t enjoy reading it very much. I didn’t like either Zed or Leo, the former spy. The former doesn’t question either his society or his mission until very late in the book, and the later seems to just get off on leveraging what little power he has left against people who are just trying to make a stand against corruption.

Neither the lawyer, Tasha, nor the maid, Sari, have much in the way of power, and they’re manipulated, threatened and attacked by others, primarily men. It’s ugly but the book seems to just shrug its shoulders and say that that’s the way of things. It made me pretty angry at times, it wasn’t hugely subtle, well, about anything, really. The parallels between the present and the (really obviously dystopian) future were pretty clear from the get-go.

Towards the end of the book, when the book really starts pushing the idea of Zed as an unreliable narrator it gets a bit more interesting, especially as the threads start to come together a bit, but for me it wasn’t worth the effort.

Book details

ISBN: 9781444727654
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Year of publication: 2011

Random Sh*t Flying Through The Air

By Jackson Ford

Rating: 2 stars

Warning: although I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews (or at least hide them), the stuff that is worth talking about in this book is all spoiler, from the second paragraph onwards. The executive summary is that it’s a fast-paced thriller with a likeable protagonist, but has Problems that mean that I’m done with the series.

The biggest problem for me in this book is that it made me want a child to die. Literally – I wanted a four-year old child to be killed. The child in this case is Matthew, the antagonist for our protagonist Teagan and her team, who can not only create earthquakes with his own telekinetic powers, but positively relishes doing so. He is lacking in any empathy whatsoever, has no self-control and hurts people (and kills them) for fun.

And what he wants to do is set off earthquakes. In California. He’s also a genius and after learning about tectonics, he deliberately triggers the San Andreas Fault, and then goes after an even bigger fault called Cascadia (which I’d never heard of, but Wiki says is A Thing). His mother is completely unable to control him – he’s never been told ‘no’ by anyone around him and has, as a result, learned to be sociopathic and compassionless.

Yes, a horrible person – but a four year child. And the author made me want him dead, and be disappointed when Teagan prevented this from happening. And I’m not sure I like that.

Also, is the moral of the series that unless you’re held in indentured servitude by the government, with the threat of vivisection hanging over you, any superpowered person will automatically be awful? Every powered person we’ve encountered so far in the series, other than Teagan (who just wants to be a chef), is a monster – an impression not lessened when we find out about the Director of the “school” that created Matthew right at the end.

Also, Teagan seems to be losing members of her team at the rate of one a book. While Carlos’s betrayal and demise in the first book was well-done, and a good twist, Paul was killed off just to show that Matthew is a Bad Person.

The book was well-written and is a good thriller, in that it keeps you engaged and keeps you turning the page. But I’m not engaged in the world any more at all.

Book details

ISBN: 9780356510460

The Girl Who Could Move Sh*t with Her Mind

By Jackson Ford

Rating: 4 stars

Unlike a lot of reviewers here, I didn’t pick up this book because of the (admittedly rather eye-catching) title. I’d seen a positive review of it in a magazine and was browsing a bookshop looking for something to cheer me up after a visit to the dentist. This caught my eye and I picked it up, and I’m rather glad that I did. It’s a lot of fun. Our protagonist, Teagan Frost, is the eponymous girl, and she’s working for a shady government agency as the only alternative to being vivisected by said government. She’s got a team around her, but as the story goes on, it becomes apparent that everybody in that team has their own secret. She has to navigate that whilst also being framed for a murder that could only be done by someone with her powers. And she’s the only one who can do that… isn’t she?

This book rarely lets up the pace, with almost every one of the (very short) chapters ending on a cliffhanger, urging you on to see what ridiculous situation Teagan has found herself in now. Teagan’s chapters are narrated in the first person, but there is another viewpoint as well, that of Jake – the other psychokinetic[1]. You start off being sympathetic to Jake, who’s had a rough life and doesn’t know where he came from. But you very quickly see him doing horrible things, all to find out more about his history. He displays a complete lack of any empathy and has no self-awareness. I’m very glad that his chapters are in the third person. I don’t think I could bear to spend time closer to him than that.

The team around Teagan get more characterisation than I was expecting in a novel of this nature, although her love-interest doesn’t fare quite as well. Teagan herself has a fun narrative voice and is enjoyable to spend time with. I look forward to reading more of her adventures.

[1] the book always calls it psychokinesis, not telekinesis, even correcting someone who uses the latter term, but never explains the difference; and the Wikipedia article suggests what Teagan does is closer to the latter than the former

Book details

ISBN: 9780356510446
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2019

The Jennifer Morgue (Laundry Files, #2)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Software billionaire Ellis Billington is trying to acquire a Soviet Cold War relic and use it to raise a Cthuloid horror from the deeps and Laundry syadmin and sometime agent Bob Howard is all that’s standing in his way. This time Bob is paired with an beautiful agent from the Black Chamber – the American equivalent of his agency – and finds himself playing baccarat in the Caribbean with a pistol under his tuxedo jacket instead of his trusty smartphone and the oddest desire for a martini.

I really enjoyed the second in Charles Stross’s ‘Laundry’ novels. Bob Howard is an engaging protagonist and you feel for him all the way through as everyone around him seems to know more than he does and he stumbles from one apparent disaster to the next trying to figure out what he’s supposed to be doing and then doing it. And it’s certainly nice to see a systems admin type geek getting the front and centre role!

This seems to be Stross’s love-letter to the spy genre, with lots of Bond references and high-tech gadgets thrown in, all with a Lovecraftian undercurrent and some neat twists. Not to mention with the addition of a suite of hacking tools in a USB stick hidden in his bow-tie and a keyboard in his cummerbund. Although Stross left the software world behind as the dot-com bubble burst, his knowledge of the subject is up-to-date enough and fond enough to pass muster.

The bonus short story at the end takes us away from the high-flying spy world and back to the back-biting inter-departmental rivalries within the Laundry (sometimes literally) for a humorous story of an all too real experience with an MMORPG. The afterword in which Stross analyses and pays tribute to Bond and the spy genre is the icing on the cake.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495705
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2006

The Moonstone

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 4 stars

The Moonstone of the title is a magnificent, sacred Indian diamond, stolen by a soldier in the British Raj and later given to his niece as a birthday present, whereupon it immediately goes missing. Just under half the book tells the story leading up to the disappearance, and the rest tackles the consequences and efforts to recover it.

Stylistically, it’s similar to Collins’ other famous work, The Woman in White with a number of different first person narratives telling the story through time. My favourite narrator was the first, the inestimable Gabriel Betteredge, old servant of the family and devotee of Robinson Crusoe. He’s got a charming narrative voice and his frequent ramblings and asides are great fun to read.

Gabriel’s polar opposite is Miss Clack, a creation, in my opinion, to rival The Woman in White’s Count Fosco, and yet also hilarious (in short doses). She’s a mockery of the kind of holier-than-thou “Christian” who Collins probably did encounter more frequently than he would like liked. She starts of as a harmless old biddie but as her narrative goes on, I found her creepier and creepier, possibly because I found her complete lack of empathy and deep selfishness, disguised as piety, all too believable.

Lots of fun, very easy to read and (for readers of my edition, at least), not as intimidating as it looks: the paper’s just very thick!

Book details

ISBN: 9781847490094
Publisher: Oneworld Classics
Year of publication: 1868

The Woman in White

By Wilkie Collins

Rating: 5 stars

Hartright is a drawing master who gets engaged to tutor two young ladies in an out of the way part of the country. Before long he is wrapped up in the mystery of the titular woman in white and must find out the secret of Sir Percival Glyde, the financeĆ© of one of his charges, before it’s too late.

I loved this book. It’s a fast-paced thriller (despite being over 600 pages long, it never feels like it dawdles) with some lovely characterisation. I’ve been told by someone in the know that Wilkie Collins was parodying some of the more overwrought gothic romances of his time. I didn’t pick up on that, but even without having the additional layers of knowledge, there’s a lot to enjoy about this book.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Glyde, and his friend Count Fosco, are the villains of the piece. But while Glyde is merely an upper class English thug that you can can’t throw a stone in Victorian literature without hitting, Fosco is something else entirely. He’s a marvellous creation who exudes charm and quirkiness, with a dedication to his pets, whilst having a very intelligent, ruthless core. He’s also believably flawed, and his interactions with Marian Halcombe are both delightful and flesh-crawling. That’s the mark of a good writer right there!

I think that the aforementioned Miss Halcombe is probably my second-favourite character, after Count Fosco. She’s intelligent, witty and not the kind of woman to go around swooning at a moment’s notice (not something you can say about her half-sister, Laura, who is to be married to Sir Percival).

So a rocking thriller with some great characters and a mystery that extends throughout the book. The structure, with multiple narrators also feels very modern and I have no hesitation in recommending this to anyone who has a modicum of an attention span.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099511243
Publisher: Vintage Classics
Year of publication: 1859

The Atrocity Archives (Laundry Files, #1)

By Charles Stross

Rating: 4 stars

Imagine a world where Lovecraftian nasties are real and the only thing standing between us and having our brains eaten is a top-secret government department ridden with bureaucratic in-fighting and politics. Reassured? Me neither. Welcome to the world of the Laundry, a secret British agency assigned to clean up incursions from other realities, in which Bob Howard is a lowly techy, who got some field duty and more than he bargained for.

Stross mingles up to the minute modern technology with the supernatural effortlessly in this fun novel (well, it’s more two novellas featuring the same protagonist). He manages to showcase the horror all around us, and the thin thread that our sanity hangs by, along with the mundanity of the bureaucracy that Bob has to fight (the Laundry is ISO 9001 certified and he takes a grim pleasure in describing the various forms that have to be filled out in triplicate). Even Milton Keynes takes on a sinister tone in the second story!

Casual discussions of basilisks, medusas and incantations sit side by side with the Internet, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and flatshares (you think you have odd flatmates, Bob comes home one day to find one of his flatmates trying to scramble an egg without breaking the shell). It’s an odd combination, all told in the first person, but it works remarkably well.

Book details

ISBN: 9781841495699
Publisher: Orbit
Year of publication: 2004


By Neal Stephenson

Rating: 3 stars

I enjoyed this political thriller, set just before the onset of the first Gulf War. It draws two very different threads, eventually weaving them into a single whole, although I’m not entirely sure how successfully. The first thread involves deputy sheriff Clyde Banks, his campaign to be elected sheriff and the discovery of a dead foreign student at the bottom of a local lake. The second involves Betsy Vandeventer, a lowish ranking CIA agent, who writes a report that ruffles some feathers and makes enemies in all the wrong places.

Of the two strands, I much preferred Clyde’s story. His small town charm and solid mind, behind a dumb faƧade make him a pleasure to read. And the fact that he spends so much time carrying his infant daughter around in his car (whether on- or off-duty) just adds to the charm.

The CIA politicking in Washington left me a bit cold. I still don’t know if I entirely understand it, especially the set-up with Betsy’s social circle. I appreciate that it could have been deliberately worked to make the small town sheriff come out better than the conniving federal agents (whether they be FBI, CIA or any other TLA) and, if so, it worked on me.

I don’t usually read present-day fiction, so it was somewhat odd seeing real people popping up in the book; both Tariq Aziz (the Iraqi foreign minister) and President George (H. W.) Bush turn up, in extended cameos. The closest thing that the book has to a villain is James Millikan. A top diplomat, who just wants things to stay under his control so that he can get on with having lunch in expensive restaurants with his friends (such as the aforementioned Mr Aziz). When Betsy’s report suggests that the Iraqis may be up to something funny, Millikan immediately stomps on it, and ‘cobwebs’ the whole thing, which basically seems to involve wrapping everybody remotely involved in so many layers of bureaucracy that nothing could possibly get done.

And that’s depressingly plausible. Despite the copious humour running through the book, the idea that very clever people are doing their best to stop others doing what’s in the best interest of the country strikes me as wholly believable and wholly depressing.

Book details

ISBN: 9780099478850
Publisher: Arrow
Year of publication: 1996

Spin State (Spin Trilogy, #1)

By Chris Moriarty

Rating: 3 stars

Catherine Li is a UN peacekeeper who jumps between worlds, doing whatever is asked of her, and forgetting a little more of herself each time, as the quantum teleportation strips a little more of her memories while she struggles to hide her own dark past. Following an information retrieval exercise that went wrong, Li finds herself back on her homeworld, being tasked with investigating the death of the most famous physicist in human space, a woman who is Li’s genetically identical clone, and whose death is looking more and more like murder.

This is a solidly interesting space opera. It throws in quantum physics, artificial intelligence, post-human relationships and more into the pot, stirs in a murder mystery, and just enough background world-building to keep you interested.

I did find it oddly unsatisfying though. I don’t know if it was the oddly mundane resolution to the murder, the grim politics that kept Li down and the AIs that live alongside humanity on a leash or something else. The potentially awesome revelation at the end didn’t have the edge that I felt it should as well. It just felt quite muted for something that should have been world-shattering.

So lots of good ideas, but it didn’t quite gel for me.

Book details

ISBN: 9780553586244
Publisher: Bantam Spectra
Year of publication: 2003

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