umberto eco: numero zero


Colonna is a middle-aged writer who has never really made a success of his life.  Dropping out of University he has had a series of failed jobs and relationships and lives in a run down apartment.  Approached by a professor he worked under at university Colonna is commissioned to write a book about the launch of a new newspaper, a newspaper that is defined to fail.  The money is good and Colonna accepts the job, working as a journalist on the launch issues but knowing that the plug is about to be pulled.  Then ‘stories’ are pulled for no good reason and the journalists are asked to produce investigations to order.  One, Braggadocio, exposes a set of complex conspiracy theories about the supposed death of Mussolini and the involvement of the Vatican and the Mafia.  Then Braggadocio is murdered…

I am a big fan of Eco’s writing but he is not the most straightforward or direct to read.  In a previous book, Foucalt’s Pendulum, the reader was lured into a complex plot which involved a conspiracy theory.  Or did it?  I really loved the development of paranoia and interpretation in that story.  However it was a real doorstop of a book.  This is completely different.

Eco picks up that idea about crucial events in history being the subject of a huge cover up and that a small group of people discover the truth but he places it in the paranoid Italy of the early 1990s.  The book is short, very tight and an exhilarating read.

lee jackson: dirty old london


London in the 19th Century was a dirty place. Reliance on coal made air pollution a problem and the burgeoning population meant that waste from humans was an ever growing issue. In this book Lee Jackson explores how the Victorians approached dealing with the different forms of dirt and the impact that changes had on society.

From the plight of chimney sweeps to the ‘Great Stink’, this is a comprehensive look at the different forms of ‘dirt’ produced and the ever inventive ways that the Victorians had of dealing with it. How the garden cemeteries of London were a commercial venture spurred on by the disinterment of half rotted corpses in church graveyards, how sewers and baths became the norm rather than the exception and sad story of the women who shared single dresses and couldn’t leave the house – Jackson has meticulously researched the facts and provides the evidence. This is an incredibly readable and entertaining book which has some key messages for society now as well.

seni glaister: the museum of things left behind


Lost in the midst of the Carpathian Mountains is the state of Vallerosa. Founded by a group of Cathars escaping persecution hundreds of years ago, Vallerosa is small and unknown with no international profile. Governed by a benevolent elected dictatorship in the form of the President Sergio and his team of officials who all inherit their positions, the people of Vallerosa live simple lives unaffected by the world. However a mistake in interpreting a letter means that well-meaning student Lizzie is mistaken for royalty and her trip to discover Vallerosa is treated as an official visit. What Lizzie finds in Vallerosa is country in need of guidance and not that of the circling corporate Americans.

This is an original premise and, after a slow start, engaging story. The idea of a country living without interference from abroad is unlikely but the cast of characters is interesting. What works well are the little set pieces including the museum of things left behind, a place to exhibit the detritus of other people’s lives, and the competition between the bar owners. OK it is more of an allegory than a piece of serious literature but it is whimsical and completely beguiling.

d j taylor: derby day


In Victorian England the Epsom Derby was the race that the entire country looked forward to each year. Assiduously following the form and reports about the horses and their owners, fortunes were won or lost on the result and the the best horse didn’t always win the race. One of the favourites for the race is Tiberius, owned by an impoverished Lincolnshire gentleman called Davenant. However Mr Davenant’s debts mean that Tiberius falls into the hands of Mr Happerton, recently married to the only daughter of an eminent barrister but both he and his wife have their own plans.

This is a wonderful book populated by a cast of expertly drawn characters from all walks of society. The plot links an audacious burglary at a jewellers, a police inspector, a governess and her charge, an aged but honest jockey, fraudsters and con men, their wives and mistresses. It is complex but incredibly readable and very cleverly put together. The race itself barely features but the colour and atmosphere of the Epsom Downs is vividly realised and the machinations of finance in the Victorian era are explored. In a world without credit cards, people borrowed money by way of promissory notes (‘paper’) and these debts could be bought and sold at will. Vulnerable individuals were prey to hangers-on and every had their own plans and schemes. Taylor has used the best of Victorian literature to draw on but has produced a modern take on the genre which more than holds its own.

mel sherratt: only the brave


DS Allie Shenton is struggling, her sister is dying and she is being taunted by her sister’s attacker. Then she gets the call that Jordan Johnson has been murdered. Jordan and his brother Ryan work for Terry Ryder – the criminal kingpin in The Potteries. Whilst Ryder is behind bars the Johnson brothers have been helping to run things and ‘look after’ Ryder’s daughter Kirstie. Ryan is devastated, he put a hit on his brother to injure him but someone has gone much further and now there is also a large amount of cash missing.

This is the third Allie Shenton book in the series and I have read two of them so far. There is much to enjoy about this book as it is a pacy police procedural. I particularly like the setting in the Black Country and the fact that the community that Sherratt writes about is obviously close to her heart. Whilst the plotline about the attacker of Shenton’s sister is, at times annoying, it does provide an exciting end to the book. The plotline about the murder of Jordan Johnson is clever and links various background characters from the previous books as well as standing alone. Sherratt is a confident writer who is mastering her style and audience.

william boyd: sweet caress


Born into a dysfunctional upper middle-class family, Amory Clay’s early life revolves around her father. When he tries to commit suicide and has a breakdown, Amory relies on her uncle Greville. Rejecting university, Amory becomes a photographer and the story follows her life through a series of events and relationships. Amory visits Berlin in the early thirties, moves to New York, then Paris during and after the war picking up lovers and experiences. After working in Vietnam Amory retires to the Scottish countryside and reflects on her life.
I have long been a fan of William Boyd’s writing. He is an accomplished writer whose work sits somewhere between high literature and popular fiction in that it is both enjoyable to read and not too demanding but also tackles difficult questions. Here the reader is asked to question their views about war (there are three wars that affect the narrative) and also about the ending of life through suicide (again there are three characters involved). However reading the book, one doesn’t initially look at the big picture as one is just relishing a really good story that is well told. This is the best sort of fiction, it doesn’t preach, it doesn’t try to make life hard for the reader through the use of obscure or overly complicated language, but it does leave the reader asking questions of themselves afterwards. A master at the peak of his powers.

bernard cornwell: waterloo


It is 200 years since the Battle of Waterloo took place in Belgium and changed the course of history. Napoleon Bonaparte, the French Emperor, had escaped from his exile on Elba and had returned to Paris. The French Government and people greeted him and quickly overthrew the restored monarchy of Louis XVIII. Bonaparte gathered a huge army and marched over the French border. The victor of the Peninsular War against Bonaparte was Lord Wellington, a hands-on, admired General, everything Bonaparte was not. Along with his Prussian allies led by General Blucher, Wellington made a stand in an area around the village of Waterloo and over four days thousands of men fought bloodily and hard.
Whilst in the UK we celebrate Waterloo as a great victory this book outlines just how hard-fought the Battle was and how it could have gone either way. Before the decisive battle both the British and the Prussians had fought the French separately and had only been saved from defeat by questionable decisions made on all sides. In the final battle Wellington’s troops sustained bombardment after bombardment and, at one point near the end, were very nearly overwhelmed.
Cornwell is not a scholar as such and this is what makes this book so good. In his fiction Cornwell uses research to give authenticity to his narrative, in this word of non-fiction he uses his narrative skills to colour the facts. This makes the book both learned and a good, pacy read.