book reviews , different studio guests each week. Join us every Thursday between 12 and 1pm on Radio Scilly 107.9fm or log on to

Missed any programmes? See below for list of guests, books and other details discussed.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Tom Sharpe - Wilt in Nowhere

review written by Brian Lowen & read on the bookshow 2014
I thought that I had read all of Tom Sharpe’s hilarious books but was pleased to find this one in the charity shop recently which I hadn’t read.
Other famous books of his include Porterhouse Blue and Blot on the Landscape, both of which have been made into films.

This book features Henry Wilt, a schoolteacher who is the central person in several other books.  Henry is married to a large lady and has four girls – quads in fact, named Samantha, Penelope, Josephine and Emmeline.

Their Uncle Wally and Auntie Joan who live in Wilma, Tennessee, invite them all over to America for the summer holidays, with all expenses paid by Wally, who is the head of a large company and is very rich with private jet and boats and a large mansion plus a summer retreat up in the mountains.

Wally does not have any relatives and Eva, Henry’s wife is hoping that Wally might leave some of his fortune to the quads in his will. Henry, however, detests Wally who is a typical brash rich Yank, always deriding Henry for his lack of enthusiasm for life and his relatively poor standard of living.

Henry therefore thinks up an excuse not to go. He waves his family off at the airport and immediately sets off on a country

trek. He packs a haversack and plans to just keep walking without planning any route but just enjoying the countryside, stopping at pubs for meals and a pint and sleeping in B & Bs.  His idyllic plans soon come tumbling down though as he gets caught in a thunderstorm in the middle of nowhere and gets into all manner of scrapes including being suspected of burning down a large house.

Eva and the girls, meanwhile, are enjoying themselves in the luxurious surroundings of Wally’s mansion. Wally soon tires of the girl’s personal questions regarding his love life and the conditions of his employees, which the girls are investigating for their projects back at school. He takes them all off to his country house to get their minds off these subjects but of course they cause him even greater embarrassment there.

Unbeknown to the family, the FBI suspect Eva of bringing drugs into the country and when they start their surveillance chaos reigns as the quads start causing mayhem for Wally and Joan and soon get packed off home with their Mother.

If you don’t laugh out loud at some of the situations Tom Sharpe dreams up for Wilt’s family then I shall be very surprised. An hilarious tale which I am pleased to recommend as a good tonic to cheer up anyone.

Simon Hall - The Shadows of Justice

review written by Brian Lowen & read on the bookshow 2014 

 Simon Hall is the BBC reporter who is often on Spotlight and he writes a very good story.

This is his sixth book and I think they just keep getting better.

Each book features Dan Groves (obviously based on Simon Hall himself) and his unusual and probably extremely unlikely involvement with Detective Chief Inspector Adam Breen of the Plymouth Police Force in helping to solve various crimes.

Dan works for Wessex Tonight, a TV programme based on Spotlight, and all the stories are set in the Plymouth area.

So once you can get over this strange liaison, the stories are actually very good. This one concerns a young little rich girl who is kidnapped while out on the streets late at night helping the homeless by giving out bowls of soup. There are several suspects and Dan is brought in to help with the investigation on the understanding that he will get an exclusive for his nightly programme. His boss at the TV centre, Lizzie, is a demanding witch, never satisfied with Dan’s reports and always wanting more.
If Dan’s story is ‘not bad’ then that is praise indeed! 

Dan lives on his own with a large Alsatian dog called Rutherford and the love interest is provided by his on/off girlfriend Claire, also a detective with the Plymouth Police. The romance is off at the moment because she is suspicious of Dan’s involvement with Katrina, a beautiful blond detective, a specialist on kidnappings who has been seconded onto the team.

I cannot give too many details of the story as that would spoil it for the readers, but just when you think the case is solved, it is not, and the story carries on with many more twists to the tale.

Good descriptions, with good characters who you feel involved with. Thoroughly enjoyable and I look forward to his next one.

Stephen Booth - Black Dog

review written by Brian Lowen & read on the bookshow 2014 

This is the first novel that SB wrote back in the year 2000 and since then I see he has written a dozen more books. I would describe his books as good detective mysteries, rather similar to Val McDermid’s books.

Smart, sexy teenager, Laura Vernon goes missing during a long hot summer in the Peak District. Her body is found by Harry Dickinson, an elderly retired lead miner, while out for a walk with his dog. Harry is one of three old blokes who have known each other all their lives and regularly meet up either on the farm or in the pub.

Ben Cooper, a young Detective Constable has known the villages all his life but his instinctive feelings about the case are challenged by the arrival of Diane Fry, a ruthlessly ambitious detective from another division who is tasked to work with Ben on the case. Ben is keen to follow his instincts and not worry too much about proper procedures and so clashes with Diane who is ruthlessly efficient and does everything by the book to get herself noticed and climb up the career ladder.

It is obvious to Ben that the three old boys are holding something back when they are interviewed and so we follow the investigation as several red herrings are thrown up as other suspects are found, including the girl’s parents, a rich couple

living in the local manor house and renowned for the wild parties that are held there.

A good story. The characters are built up slowly and become believable and I enjoyed it. It did not become boring as I have found some detective novels can be.

Jung Chang - Empress Dowager Cixi

review written by Brian Lowen & read on the bookshow 2014

This is the story of Cixi who rose from being a lowly concubine in the Emperor’s harem in his palace in Beijing to become the virtual ruler of all China, from 1861 to 1908.

She was lucky in being the first concubine to produce a healthy son for the Emperor, which dramatically raised her status.

Emperor Xianfeng hated foreigners and kept China’s borders and ports closed to visiting traders from other nations, but after losing the Opium Wars with Britain and France he was forced to open up some ports to trade and this was when Britain acquired the deserted and desolate island of Hong Kong as a port for her ships.

On the death of the Emperor, Cixi led a coup to gain power from the eight Regents appointed under the Emperor’s will until Cixi’s son was old enough to take power. She gained the confidence of one of the Princes and reigned with the Emperor’s widow, the Dowager. Cixi was also made a Dowager and so China was effectively ruled by two Empress Dowagers behind the front of Prince Gong and his Council of Advisors. All edicts issued were not legal unless they bore the seal of the two Empress Dowagers. Empress Dowager Zhen did all the administration and was content to let Cixzi make the policy. 

When her son was made Emperor at the age of sixteen he was a disappointment – more interested in having fun than ruling the country. He was content to let his Mother continue to do all the work with him as the figurehead. When he died prematurely young the way was open for Cixi to continue her modernisation plans, after a suitable period of mourning.
She sent envoys to many western countries and then introduced the telegraph system, coal mining and railways, to which there was much opposition as it was feared that the trains would disturb the dead in their graves.

She appointed another young child as Emperor and she continued to rule for forty years until she died in 1908, when Mao seized power, assisted by Russia. She was a remarkable woman who survived several assassination attempts and the Boxer revolution, plus wars with Britain, Germany, Russia and Japan.

She brought modernity to China and set a standard that has not been matched. Under her leadership China began to acquire all the attributes of a modern state.

A truly remarkable women which makes a great read. Very interesting as she is virtually unknown in today’s world.

Edmund de Waal - The Hare with the Amber Eyes

review written & read live on the bookshow by Brian Lowen 16th Oct 2014

This book goes into great detail and is very long – you have to be determined to stick with it through to the end.

The story centres on the Netsuke which are tiny Japanese carved figures of wood and ivory, designed to be held in the hand and there are 264 of them in the collection.

The book details the history of them since they were first collected by the Ephrussi family in Vienna in the 19th century. They were very rich Jews who also had family connections in Paris and Tokyo.

The author, who now owns the collection, spent two years tracing their history and that of the family through two world wars. The family originally owned a bank in Vienna and had several large mansions around Austria with many servants and a fine collection of art – paintings, tapestries, porcelain and jewellery and the netsuke which were all displayed in a glass fronted cabinet.

The author travels around Europe, locating their houses and investigating the lives of the original inhabitants. The book goes into great detail about their lives and all the art treasures.

Being a Jewish family, they suffered during the first world war and even more so during the second, when they lost all their

property, their jobs and their possessions, except for the netsuke which were hidden by one of the faithful servants, as Hitler established his Third Reich. The descriptions of their lives during this time are quite heart-rending.

The family all gradually leave Austria – the last member escaping with just one suitcase and ending up in Tunbridge Wells, living with relations.

I found the book unnecessarily long, but it was two years work by the Author and he has recorded everything he discovered. A book for lovers of art, in all its forms, but not, I am afraid, for me. I only read it because our Chaplain mentioned it in one of his sermons and I thought it sounded interesting as it is a true story, but I found it much too long and detailed.

Mark Billingham - The Dying Hours

review written & read live on the bookshow by Brian Lowen 16th Oct 2014

I bought this book from the charity shop but when I got home I realised that I had read another book by this author - In The Dark – which I never finished as I could not get into it.
However, I persevered, and found it was quite good.

It is one of a series featuring Detective Inspector Tom Thorne, who has now been demoted to Detective Sergeant for some indiscretion he committed – what it was we are not told but I assume it was in a previous book in the series.

Tom is convinced that a series of suicides committed in the previous weeks are somehow linked because all the victims were perfectly happy and had no reason to kill themselves.

He starts picking up one or two clues and is convinced there is a serial killer at large, possibly seeking revenge for something that happened years ago. He tries to convince his bosses that the suicides should be investigated further, but they don’t agree with him, so he sets out to track the killer down on his own, getting limited help from some of his friendly colleagues.

He has recently started a relationship with Helen who works in Social Services and has a young son, Alfie. Tom’s obsession with this case and the extra hours he puts in investigating it causes some friction with their budding affair.

When he has amassed quite a lot of information leading to the killer he still goes on alone, rather than presenting the facts to his superiors, presumably to try and get promotion to his former rank of Inspector.

Whilst I enjoyed the story, I found the telling of it rather disjointed and sometimes hard to follow. The ending was rather left up in the air – presumably to try to get you to buy the next book in the series I expect, but I won’t be tempted.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

James Nelson -The Maddest Idea

review written and read live on the bookshow by Brian Lowen on 2nd Oct 2014

This is the second book in a series of five entitled Revolution at Sea which are all set in the days of the American War of Independence.

I have read several other books by James Nelson which are all set in the glorious days of fighting sail and all have been rollicking good stories.

It is the late summer of 1775 when General George Washington discovers that his supply of gunpowder has dwindled to only a few remaining barrels. A desperate plan is hatched to send Captain Isaac Biddlecomb in the small man-of-war brig to Bermuda, where it is known that the British have a lightly guarded store of gunpowder.

But it is a trap, set by a traitor among the American patriots, and Biddlecomb is captured.
It is interesting to note here that not all Americans wished for independence but some wanted things to remain as they were with the British in control. The problem was that the British ruled with such a heavy hand that many Americans yearned for freedom from what they considered was the oppressive rule of the British government.

General Washington sends his aide-de-camp, Major Edward Fitzgerald, to hunt down the traitor who has led to the capture of Biddlecomb. Meanwhile will Biddlecomb be able to escape from the clutches of the British Navy?

The love interest in the story is provided by Virginia Stanton, daughter of the owner of Biddlecomb’s ship and Isaac and Fitzgerald compete for her love.

This is an enthralling story for anyone who enjoys good sea stories and can understand a bit about sailing ships. It is nicely balanced between the Americans and the British and you find your loyalties switching from side to side as the story progresses. Maps are provided to assist with your understanding of where the actions are taking place in Bermuda and in Rhode island and Boston in America but they are maps drawn at the time and difficult to read – simple line drawings would have been easier to follow. Also of course, maps are pretty impossible to read on a kindle.

That is my only criticism of the book and I look forward to reading the third book in the series. They do all follow on with the characters, so it would be best to start with the first book, but not essential.