Flying higher

19 01 2019

The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock

With echoes of Raymond Carver as well as Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff and Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, The Last Pilot re-ignites the thrill and excitement of the space race through the story of one man’s courage in the face of unthinkable loss.

Set against the backdrop of one of the most emotionally charged periods in American history, The Last Pilot begins in the bone-dry Mojave Desert during the late 1940s, where US Air Force test pilots are racing to break the sound barrier. Among the exalted few is Jim Harrison: dedicated to his wife, Grace, and their baby daughter.

By the 1960s, the space race is underway and Harrison and his colleagues are offered a place in history as the world s first astronauts. But when his young family is thrown into crisis, Jim is faced with a decision that will affect the course of the rest of his life whether to accept his ticket to the moon and at what cost.

It’s a good portrayal of an extraordinary time and place and does capture some of the excitement of the early days of the space race. But at the heart this is a tale of relationships and the absence of what would now be described as work-life balance. Whilst it is tightly written and well crafted, the comparisons with Carver and Hemingway are somewhat overstated. Nevertheless a decent read.



Top reads of 2018

12 01 2019

Big six

These are my favourite reads from the past 12 months. Plenty of other very good ones too but these are the stand out novels including a couple of older classics and two soon to be ones.


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje


The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles by Giorgio Bassani


Villette by Charlotte Bronte


Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes


This is Memorial Device by David Keenan


The Forensic Records Society by Magnus Mills

All highly recommended.

Jack’s back

5 01 2019

Want You Gone by Chris Brookmyre

What if your deepest secret was revealed?

Sam Morpeth is growing up way too fast, left to fend for a younger sister when their mother goes to prison and watching her dreams of university evaporate. But Sam learns what it is to be truly powerless when a stranger begins to blackmail her.

Who would you turn to?

Meanwhile, reporter Jack Parlabane has finally got his career back on track, but his success has left him indebted to a volatile, criminal source. Now that debt is being called in, and it could cost him everything.

What would you be capable of?

Thrown together by a vindictive and mysterious mutual enemy, Sam and Jack are about to discover they might be each other’s only hope.

It’s one of the best in the very good eight book Jack Parlabane series by Brookmyre. With all the customary ingredients including moral ambiguities and some complicated plotting the story really races along. Brookmyre often covers some really contemporary themes, including around IT, media and politics,  and this is no exception – it could all sound pretty dated in a few years but at present it feels really convincing. Parlabane is also a great leading character – largely honest and credible with some big character flaws which keep him interesting and unpredictable.

The climax is certainly a gripping one but does depend on the author holding back some narrative which would otherwise have been revealed – a bit of a cheat really but forgivable. Anyway, great fun and recommended.



four stars

Winter is here

22 12 2018

Winter by Ali Smith


Winter? Bleak. Frosty wind, earth as iron, water as stone, so the old song goes. The shortest days, the longest nights. The trees are bare and shivering. The summer’s leaves? Dead litter.

The world shrinks; the sap sinks.
But winter makes things visible. And if there’s ice, there’ll be fire.

In Ali Smith’s Winter, lifeforce matches up to the toughest of the seasons. In this second novel in her acclaimed Seasonal cycle, the follow-up to her sensational Autumn, Smith’s shape-shifting quartet of novels casts a merry eye over a bleak post-truth era with a story rooted in history, memory and warmth, its taproot deep in the evergreens: art, love, laughter.

It’s the season that teaches us survival.
Here comes Winter.

It’s a strong follow up to Autumn but lacks some of the force of the earlier novel. Many of the themes are sustained and there remains a clear polemical edge but lacks a certain something. Ideal Christmas fayre perhaps but possibly too much contemporary politics at the dinner table.

Nevertheless, looking forward to Spring…



Essex – it’s not the only way

15 12 2018

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

London, 1893. When Cora Seaborne’s controlling husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness. Along with her son Francis – a curious, obsessive boy – she leaves town for Essex, in the hope that fresh air and open space will provide refuge.

On arrival, rumours reach them that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming lives, has returned to the coastal parish of Aldwinter. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist with no patience for superstition, is enthralled, convinced that what the local people think is a magical beast may be a yet-undiscovered species. As she sets out on its trail, she is introduced to William Ransome, Aldwinter’s vicar, who is also deeply suspicious of the rumours, but thinks they are a distraction from true faith.

As he tries to calm his parishioners, Will and Cora strike up an intense relationship, and although they agree on absolutely nothing, they find themselves at once drawn together and torn apart, affecting each other in ways that surprise them both.

This won a whole bunch of awards I think and certainly has much going for it. It’s well written and does move along reasonably well with a decent element of mystery. However, the central relationship between Cora the widow and Will the Vicar really doesn’t feel wholly credible although it is true to say it surprises them both. Not a bad yarn but ultimately somewhat unsatisfying.


Curiouser and curiouser

24 11 2018

The Old Curiosity Shop by Charles Dickens

Dickens’s Little Nell became one of his best-known heroines when The Old Curiosity Shop was first published in 1841. Virtuous and stoic, Nell takes care of her grandfather in his gloomy shop until his gambling debts force the pair of them to flee London. They are hunted by the grotesque and villainous moneylender Quilp and Nell’s own worthless brother, Fred, who wrongly believes that their grandfather has a hidden fortune. Through a kaleidoscopic round of people and events, Nell and her grandfather eventually reach a safe refuge, although neither of them is destined to enjoy it for long.

One of those books I had inexplicably never read. Of course it is superbly written and well-paced and features the outstanding character, Little Nell. It is also very powerful in terms of its social comment and the contrast between the impoverished and downtrodden and the harsh and the privileged. But the sentimental treatment of Little Nell is rather over the top in the end and, while it doesn’t wholly undermine what has gone before, I really struggled to take the final episodes completely seriously. Still, great overall.

four stars

Snap, crackle and a bit of pop

17 11 2018

Snap by Belinda Bauer


On a stifling summer’s day, eleven-year-old Jack and his two sisters sit in their broken-down car, waiting for their mother to come back and rescue them. Jack’s in charge, she’d said. I won’t be long.

But she doesn’t come back. She never comes back. And life as the children know it is changed for ever.

Three years later, Jack is still in charge – of his sisters, of supporting them all, of making sure nobody knows they’re alone in the house, and – quite suddenly – of finding out the truth about what happened to his mother. . .

The Val McDermid endorsement together with all of the other quotes full of praise drew me to wanting to give this a go. It’s a really good premise with a couple of great characters at the heart of it and the plot fairly rattles along. I must admit to feeling a wee bit let down with the ending but perhaps that’s a little harsh. Still an entertaining read.


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