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Mike

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  • The Mrs Bradley Mysteries

  • Classic Radio Crime
  • By: Gladys Mitchell
  • Narrated by: Mary Winbush, Leslie Phillips, Full Cast
  • Length: 2 hrs and 55 mins
  • Original Recording
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 28
  • Performance
    4 out of 5 stars 23
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 23

In these two dramas, she puts her extraordinary mind to work investigating cases of disguise, dismemberment, mayhem and murder. In Speedy Death, a country house in the 1920s is rocked by a murder which takes place in a room which is first locked, then later unlocked. As fingers point and the suspects begin to turn on each other, another death occurs. Then The Mystery of a Butcher's Shop sees Mrs Bradley investigating as a headless body is found in the butcher's shop.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • Love these classic crime radio dramas

  • By M. K. on 10-10-17

Two books murdered by the BBC

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 15-10-17

The mrs Bradley Mysteries
Good reviews on BookLikes me to try out Gladys Mitchell's rather unique take on the female upper-class sleuth. I'm one of those folks who feels obliged to start such things from the beginning, so I went in search of an audiobook version of the first book "Speedy Death".
I could only find a BBC dramatisation that presents "Speedy Death" and "The Mystery of the Butcher's Shop" in a condensed version that accords only ninety minutes to each.
"Speedy Death" is presented at pace worthy of the title. The overall feel is that of a pantomime intended for adult consumption. The cast is competent. The production standards are smooth but perhaps a bit too tongue-in-cheek. It seems to me that the dramatisation is cosy almost to the point of being self-mocking whereas the themes in the book : murder, extra-judicial execution, transgender living, lesbian attraction, abusive men and a self-possessed, manipulative older woman would have been quite shocking when the book was published in 1929. Gladys Mitchell seems to be playing Quentin Tarrantino to Agatha Christie's more conventional Cohen Brothers but the BBC have turned her efforts into something close to a farce.
"Speedy Death" is populated by damaged, privileged people who seem to have no understanding of just how broken they all are. Mrs Bradley, our heroine is a high-functioning sociopath, strong on insight and short on empathy, who stalks ruthlessly and gleefully through the pack of upper-class walking-wounded, mentally vivisecting them with accuracy and obvious, almost manic, pleasure.
I finished the dramatisation "Speedy Death" feeling that I'd been shown the pop-up book version of what might well be a fascinating novel.
Things got worse when I reached "The Mystery Of A Butcher's Shop". The main murder committed here seems to be by the BBC who effectively killed this novel by slap-dash attempts at humour and a script so clumsy as to be negligent. They added insult to injury by inflicting "Them Bones, Them Bones, Them Dry Bones" as a chorus sung at random intervals.
I suspect that this novel never had a particular strong constitution as it leans too heavily on the sensational supported by the improbable but the BBC have managed completely to drain it of any life it once had.
I'm interested in reading Gladys Mitchell but I'll stick to her text in future.

6 of 10 people found this review helpful

  • Whose Body?

  • Lord Peter Wimsey: Book 1
  • By: Dorothy L. Sayers
  • Narrated by: Jane McDowell
  • Length: 6 hrs and 39 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 155
  • Performance
    3.5 out of 5 stars 143
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 141

It was the body of a tall stout man. On his dead face, a handsome pair of gold pince-nez mocked death with grotesque elegance. The body wore nothing else.Lord Peter Wimsey knew immediately what the corpse was supposed to be. His problem was to find out whose body had found its way into Mr Alfred Thipps' Battersea bathroom.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Terrible performance

  • By Nicky on 12-04-15

Poor narration drains the wit from this book.

Overall
1 out of 5 stars
Performance
1 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-10-17

This hit my DNF pile with speed because of the narration. The timing of the humour is off. The range of voices is narrow. The delivery is unsympathetic.

I'll send this back and buy the ebook.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • The Wrong Unit

  • A Novel
  • By: Rob Dircks
  • Narrated by: Rob Dircks
  • Length: 5 hrs and 37 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 12
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars 12
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 11

I don't know what the humans are so cranky about. Their enclosures are large, they ingest over 1,000 calories per day, and they're allowed to mate. Plus, they have me: an Autonomous Servile Unit, housed in a mobile/bipedal chassis. I do my job well: keep the humans healthy and happy.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Original, feel-good science fiction

  • By Mike on 03-01-17

Original, feel-good science fiction

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-01-17

Despite the fact that this is a post-apocalyptic story in which the few remaining humans are kept in captivity, this is a feel-good Science Fiction novel.

The lightness in tone comes mainly from the innocence and empathy of the main character, Heyou, a Servile Unit (an A.I. in a humanish body) whose purpose is the care and feeding of humans in their compound.

Heyou, the Wrong Unit of the title, is picked up by mistake and thrust into an epic quest to save humanity.

This involves a very long walk with a very small child. As Heyou trudges across the planet his empathy for humans and his own sense of identity grows with each challenge that he overcomes. Eventually, he has to face the biggest challenge of all, freeing humanity by bringing down Core, the A.I. who made him.

Rob Dircks is both author and narrator of this novel and he does both jobs with a deft touch and a nuanced understanding of dialogue and interior monologues.

This book is packed with clever ideas and finds new twists on the A.I. – menace-to-humanity trope but its strength comes from the gradual growth of Heyou into a fully rounded person.

Pick this one up if you want a light, fast, upbeat read.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

  • A Second Chance

  • The Chronicles of St Mary's, Book 3
  • By: Jodi Taylor
  • Narrated by: Zara Ramm
  • Length: 9 hrs and 14 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,489
  • Performance
    5 out of 5 stars 1,372
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,362

St Mary’s is back and nothing is going right for Max. Once again, it’s just one damned thing after another. The action jumps from an encounter with a mirror-stealing Isaac Newton to the bloody battlefield at Agincourt. Discover how a simple fact-finding assignment to witness the ancient and murderous cheese-rolling ceremony in Gloucester can result in CBC - concussion by cheese.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Great balance between fun and fear

  • By Mike on 18-11-15

Great balance between fun and fear

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-11-15

The Historians at St.Mary’s have a straightforward approach to discovering what really happened at an historical event, they get in a POD, travel back in time and take a shufftie at what’s going on.

Of course, that means that they risk getting abducted, maimed or killed by the locals or simply by their own clumsiness, but they are a plucky lot who are willing to take their chances and get on with things in their own anarchic way.

The lead Historian, Madeleine Maxwell, “Max”, is the embodiment of what a St. Mary’s Historian should be: insatiably curious, unthinkingly courageous, capable of great compassion but implacable in dealing with those she sees as evil.

She’s come a long way from her rookie days in the first book, “Just One Damned Thing After Another” when she had “damaged misfit” written all the way through her like “Brighton” in a bar of rock.

She is a leader: doing the detailed planning, wrangling the St. Mary’s mob into almost acting as a team, winning the respect and even the love of her people. She’s getting her personal life together after a series of disasters.

Of course, in a Jodi Taylor novel, where every silver lining has a cloud, this degree of happiness and accomplishment can only mean that Max is doomed. Which indeed she is, though I won’t disclose her fate here.

The St. Mary’s books really are chronicles, describing events in the order that they happened, although, with time travel involved, the timeline can still have twists and turns in it. In “A Second Chance”, we follow the intrepid Max to Sir Issac Newton’s London, the fall of Troy and the battle of Agincourt. There are also a few unexpected side trips that you’ll have to read the book to find out about.

Troy has been a long-term obsession for Max. She wants to know if Greek soldiers really hid in the belly of a wooden horse and how they stayed hidden and how they got out and whether Helen’s face really launched a thousand ships, and hundreds of other things, so going there is a big deal and is described at length. What I enjoyed most about this part of the book was that, while original, plausible, surprising answers are given to all these questions, their importance fades as the scale of human suffering becomes clear. Max and her team spend months in Troy before the siege, sharing the way of life of the people only to it strangled by the siege and shattered by the assault on the city. The killing, rape, enslavement and greed-driven destruction hits home hard. This is not some Homeric glorification of war, but a description of the human cost of the phrase: “Troy fell.”

Towards the end of the book, after Agincourt, Max’s life takes a strange, world-changing, series-altering turn that finally explains the title, “A Second Chance.” This twist makes me certain that the next St. Mary’s book will be different from its predecessors. I’m looking forward to seeing what Jodi Taylor does with it.

5 of 5 people found this review helpful

  • Echo Burning

  • Jack Reacher 5
  • By: Lee Child
  • Narrated by: Jeff Harding
  • Length: 13 hrs and 58 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,687
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,545
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 1,546

Jack Reacher, adrift in the hellish heat of a Texas summer. Looking for a lift through the vast empty landscape. A woman stops, and offers a ride. She is young, rich and beautiful. But her husband's in jail. When he comes out, he's going to kill her. Her family's hostile, she can't trust the cops, and the lawyers won't help. She is entangled in a web of lies and prejudice, hatred and murder.J ack Reacher never could resist a lady in distress.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • What's not to like?

  • By Joseph on 01-12-13

Action-packed thriller with a twisty plot

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-11-15

“Echo Burning” has Jack Reacher bouncing aimlessly around Texas, where his “Mess with me and you get what you get” attitude is in danger of getting him some jail time, when a beautiful, well-dressed latino woman in a posh car stops to give him a life, sells him her tale of woe and asks him to kill her abusive husband. Reacher says no but can’t quite bring himself to walk away.

I liked the idea that there was something Reacher would say no to. He knows himself well enough to realize that he’s saying no not because the idea of killing a bad man bothers him but because he lacks the personal involvement he needs before he can unleash his righteous anger. Reacher sees himself as a hot-headed killer, not a cold-blooded one.

The plot of “Echo Burning” has more mystery to it than some of the Reacher books. It seems everyone Reacher meets lies to him. Some much so that he begins to doubt his own judgement. Some of the lies are so beautifully told that I shared Reacher’s inability to distinguish truth from deception. This effect was added to by the fact that the good guys are less good and the bad guys less bad than in the typical Jack Reacher novel. Reach is invited to follow in the footsteps of a famous Texas lawman, Clay Allison, who “ never killed a man that did not need killing” but to do that, he’d first have to figure out who deserves to die.

Lee Child turns up the heat by having a parallel story about a killing crew being brough to Texas to take out specific targets. As the reader, you know these stories are connected but making the connection gives you something else to puzzle over.

The deception in the book shows how vulnerable Reacher’s “don’t mess with me or mine” code makes him to being turned into a weapon targeted by someone else’s agenda. At times, Reacher seems border-line sane in this novel. He’s rational but his view of what constitutes a normal reaction to a threat and his disregard for the law is so far out of line that is seems pathological.

In “Echo Burning” Lee Child makes Texas itself a character in his story. I’ve only been to Texas a few times, and only to the big cities on business, but Lee Child’s description of the State matched my memory: a mix of heat and humidity that means you can sweat through your clothes stepping from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned lobby, a distance between places that means people think nothing of driving an hour to get to a restaurant, huge skies and endless, deserted roads.

Lee Child gives a very unforgiving view of the Texas legal system as being on the side of the rich and powerful. He also brings anti-latino racism into sharp focus.

My favourite character in the book was Ellie, an earnest and brave six and a half year old little girl who is impossible not to root for.

  • We Are All Completely Fine

  • By: Daryl Gregory
  • Narrated by: Tavia Gilbert
  • Length: 4 hrs and 14 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 6
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 6
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 6

Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-30s and spends most of his time not sleeping. Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Difficult, disturbing and slightly disappointing

  • By Mike on 18-11-15

Difficult, disturbing and slightly disappointing

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-11-15

“We Are All Completely Fine” is a novella is about sole survivors of extreme traumas with a supernatural not-credible-to-the-authorities flavour, who are brought together by a psychiatrist to “work” in Group Therapy sessions. As time goes by, it becomes clear that the group has not been assembled randomly and that their status as survivors may be only temporary.

It sounds like a good, compelling thriller. It isn’t. It’s something else. I’m just not sure what.

The book is disturbing and difficult to listen to. The violence and inhumanity that the members of the Group have been through is extreme, repulsive, and shared in an almost off-handed manner that makes it quite chilling. The crippling impact of these events on their lives, sometime decades later, is entirely believable and deeply sad but the style of storytelling, nested in the context of “Therapy” and delivered with a sort of distant intimacy, that reduces the emotional impact until what is left is a kind of unempathic voyeurism.

Daryl Gregory writes well, so I’m sure the tone of the book is deliberate, I’m just a little lost about what it is supposed to achieve.

For example, each chapter starts from the point of view of an anonymous person who, from their use of the term “We”, seems to be a member of the Group; yet, in a number of cases, this anonymous narrator refers to all the members of the Group, one by one, without using the term “I”. It is skillfully done. It contributes to the clinical but intimate feel of the story. I assumed I would eventually find out who the narrator was and why they’d been kept anonymous. If Gregory did provide an explanation, it slipped by me.

Perhaps I’m being obtuse in not being able to work out why Gregory used this conceit rather than a more conventional authorial voice but this tale doesn’t have enough substance in it to make it worth my while to work that hard.

The end of the book felt anti-climatic to me. Perhaps Gregory wanted to stress that in life no story ends but for me, reading fiction rather than philosophy, it felt like the author either wimped out off writing a longer novel or had extended a short story to the point that the impact of the ending was lost.

I loved Gregory’s writing but I finished the book feeling disappointed.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

  • Enemies at Home

  • Flavia Albia Mystery, Book 2
  • By: Lindsey Davis
  • Narrated by: Lucy Brown
  • Length: 10 hrs and 43 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 181
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 156
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 153

From renowned author Lindsey Davis, creator of the much-loved character, Marcus Didius Falco and his friends and family, comes the second novel in her all-new series set in Ancient Rome. We first met Flavia Albia, Falco's feisty adopted daughter, in The Ides of April. Albia is a remarkable woman in what is very much a man's world: Young, widowed and fiercely independent, she lives alone on the Aventine Hill in Rome and makes a good living as a hired investigator.

  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Better than the first book

  • By Mike on 18-11-15

Better than the first book

Overall
3 out of 5 stars
Performance
3 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-11-15

When I finished “The Ides Of April”, the first book in this Falco-the-next-generation series, I wasn’t sure that I liked Flavia Albia because I found her distant and rash, setting out to find trouble.

In “Enemies At Home”, I began to like her a little better.

I enjoyed her insider/outsider status. She is far more of an outsider than her adopted father, Falco, plebeian turned citizen and art dealer, ever was: a woman, a non-Roman orphan, a widow without a household and carrying on the disreputable profession of Informer. Her outsider status manifests in a lower sense of entitlement than Falco had and a deeper understanding of the threats that Roman laws and traditions hold for her.

Yet Flavia Albia is not a total outsider. Her uncles are Senators, her mother is a Patrician, Flavia Albia herself is a landlord (albeit a low rent one) and she is able to mix on equal terms with Aediles and Tribunes. Her insider status manifests in a willingness to take on those in authority, including the ones in authority in the local criminal underworld, that gets her into more trouble than her outsider status.

What made me warm to Flavia Albia in “Enemies At Home” was her willingness to slaves as people and not just as property. Slaves are the enemy at home, outnumbering their masters, having access to the most intimate details of their owner’s lives and present at their most vulnerable moments. Fear of what slaves might do if things turned sour resulted in Roman laws that defaulted to executing all slaves associated, however indirectly, with any act of violence towards their masters.

“Enemies At Home” tells of Flavia Albia’s investigation into the murder, apparently by their slaves, of a newly married couple. She sets out to prove that the slaves didn’t do it.

Her investigations provide an insight into the lives of slaves and the curious relationship they have with their masters: on the one hand, the slaves are part of the household and intimately involved in its operation, on the other hand they are property that can be bought or sold in the same way as a horse or a cow. Flavia Albia herself is cast in the role of (temporary) slave master when she is given a young man to “look after her” for the duration of the investigation. She handles it in a very human way: making mistakes, feeling frustration, but never losing sight of dealing with another person, with thoughts and emotions of their own.

This is a pleasing whodunnit, with a wide range of potential evil-doers, enough surprises along the way to keep life interesting and a denouement that is both credible and hard to foresee. The home in which the crimes took place is described so well that I felt I had spent time sitting in the chairs in the courtyard. My favourite scene in the book occurs there: Flavia Albia sitting with three other woman, a mixture of suspects and victims, drinking wine, building a rapport and then being discovered by two male visitors. The friendly way in which these women from disparate backgrounds interacted felt real and timeless. The fact that Flavia Albia, even in an apparent moment of wine-induced intimacy, is still investigating covertly, told me a great deal about who she is and how she thinks.

In this book, although Flavia Albia keeps her independence of spirit, her ability to engage in banter with authority figures and her willingness to confront those more powerful than she is, she seems a little more vulnerable than in the first book. Perhaps she’s just a little older. Perhaps she is just taking on more serious enemies. Whatever the reason, I liked her more for it.

The book ends with dramatic events, occasioned by a reckless but plausible error in judgement by Flavia and ending with an intimate intervention that may change Flavia’s relationship with her family and with the Aedile that she has been working with.

This increased my sense of Flavia’s vulnerability and, I suspect, sets up the relationships for the next book, “Deadly Election”, which is now on my (still growing faster than I can read them) TBR book pile.

5 of 6 people found this review helpful

  • Funny Girl

  • By: Nick Hornby
  • Narrated by: Emma Fielding
  • Length: 10 hrs and 18 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 223
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 196
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 196

Funny Girl is the story of a popular 1960s tv comedy series. The writers are Tony and Bill, comedy obsessives, who each harbour a secret. The Oxbridge-educated director, Dennis, loves his job but hates his marriage. The male star, Clive, feels he's destined for better things. And most of all there is Sophie Straw, once Barbara Parker, Miss Blackpool 1964, who's changed her name and abandoned her old life because she just wants to make people laugh, like her heroine Lucille Ball of I Love Lucy fame.

  • 5 out of 5 stars
  • A complete delight!

  • By Mr. S. Wallace-jones on 14-11-14

Gentle, funny, compassionate book

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-11-15

Reading “Funny Girl” was like meeting an old friend and being reminded all over again why you liked them so much in the first place. With wit, optimism and gentle compassion, Nick Hornby summons up the zeitgeist of Britain in the 1960s and 70s through the medium of TV comedy on the BBC.

Like Hornby himself, I was a child in the 1960s, so I missed some of then nuances of BBC comedy, failing to see what was daring and subversive but still understanding what was truly funny.

Hornby helped me to remember what it was like at the start of the 60s when we had only two TV channels in England,the BBC and ITV. EVERYBODY watched the same programs and discussed them the next day because those were the only programs available. I was seven when BBC 2 went on air in 1964 but I couldn’t watch it because we didn’t have a telly that could cope with the fancy 625 line UHF transmission. We were still watching a small box with a big tube that used the much lower definition 405 line VHF transmission. Of course, back then, everything was in glorious black and white. Even so, programs like the BBC’s Comedy Playhouse attracted huge audiences and launched series that EVERYONE watched (Steptoe and Son, launched by the Comedy Playhouse, attracted audiences of up to 28 million – about half of the population of the UK at the time).

“Funny Girl” tells the story of Barbara, a young woman from “up North” who declines to accept the title of Miss Blackpool and moves south to London to follow in the footsteps of her idol, Lucille Ball and become a comedian. She clicks with the writers of a new show for the BBC, they re-write the show as showcase for her and her career takes off.

As we follow Barbara’s career from ingénue through comic star to redoubtable Dame of British Television, Nick Hornby helped me understand the transitions that Britain was going through and the role comedy played in helping audiences to understand themselves.

I was deeply impressed by Nick Hornby’s ability to write a novel that often made me laugh but which is centred around very believable, very human characters, with strengths and flaws and personality quirks, who he describes with a compassion that comes very close to love and which generates a possibility of hope that I found very affecting.

This well written book was made even better in audio by a superb performance by Emma Fielding who got every voice and every accent absolutely right and amplified the value of every page.

3 of 4 people found this review helpful

  • New Order

  • Bo Blackman, Book 2
  • By: Helen Harper
  • Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld
  • Length: 9 hrs and 14 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4.5 out of 5 stars 75
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 71
  • Story
    4.5 out of 5 stars 70

Bo Blackman is not adjusting to her new life as a fledgling vampire particularly well. Drinking blood sickens her and, despite her new enhanced physical skills and the attention she's receiving from Lord Montserrat, she's desperate to find a cure. When her illegal search takes her to the door of Fingertips and Frolics, a small family-run magic shop, she becomes embroiled in a dangerous game of tit-for-tat with murderous consequences.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Bo seeks a cure for her vampirism

  • By Mike on 18-11-15

Bo seeks a cure for her vampirism

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-11-15

“New Order”, the second book of the Bo Blackman series, is as fresh and as much fun to read as “Dire Straits” was.

Bo hates being a vampire. The idea of drinking blood revolts her. The fact that she was turned against her will makes her angry. The fact that there was a good reason for turning her just makes her angrier still. Despite being told, many times by many people, that there is no cure for vampirism, she sets off to find one and gets into a great deal of trouble during her search.

I love Bo’s anger, her impulsiveness and her (sometimes stupid) refusal to ask for help or take advice. Most of all, I like her refusal to accept that there is no way out of her situation. True, all of these things make her life more difficult than it needs to be, but they also make her more human. Bo’s humanity, or rather her refusal to abandon her humanity, is the driving force of this book. She may be a vampire but she’s determined to still be herself. Except, some parts of being a vampire (running across the rooftops of tall buildings, having super strength, healing really quickly) are really cool, and, much as she want to break free from the Monserrat vampire family that turned her, the leader of the family attracts her in ways she finds hard to ignore.

Helen Harper, describes her alternative London with deft, confident strokes. She clearly has a larger story arc in mind. Her world building deepens, telling us more about witches, demons and magic, as well as seeing how the vampire families work.

Although Bo is always dashing from place to place, often throwing herself in harms way, the story is not chaotic. The pace is carefully controlled and perfectly timed.

By the end of this book, I found that I now had an ensemble cast that I’m interested in, a volatile main character with bags of potential to entertain and surprise and a well written new world that I’m going to enjoy visiting as often as Helen Harper invites me to.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Dire Straits

  • Bo Blackman, Book 1
  • By: Helen Harper
  • Narrated by: Saskia Maarleveld
  • Length: 10 hrs and 6 mins
  • Unabridged
  • Overall
    4 out of 5 stars 108
  • Performance
    4.5 out of 5 stars 99
  • Story
    4 out of 5 stars 98

Bo Blackman is a rookie private investigator working for the London based firm of Dire Straits. She doesn't often get triber-based assignments, which is just as well. Vampires and daemons don't interest her as much as humans do... However, when she has to serve a summons on a dodgy daemon called Devlin O'Shea and she ends up saving his life instead of being framed for his murder, her life takes a shocking turn for the worse.

  • 4 out of 5 stars
  • Delightfully British Urban Fantasy

  • By Mike on 18-11-15

Delightfully British Urban Fantasy

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
4 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 18-11-15

Set in an alternative contemporary London where Tribers (Demons, Witches and Vampires) have been an accepted part of society for centuries, “Dire Straits” tells the story of Bo Blackman, a bottom-rung-of-the-ladder investigator at the Dire Straits detective agency, who is set up for a murder charge when she attempts to serve a summons on a demon.

“Dire Straits” is excellent Urban Fantasy by any standard: it gives a new and convincing take on Vampires, Witches and Demons; it has a complicated, well thought through plot that kept me hungry to know what would happen next while feeding me action, tension, and emotional upheaval along the way and the main character is engaging as much for her flaws as for her strengths.

My enjoyment of all these attributes was greatly increased by the fact that the book is set in London, which means that, as a Brit, I can clearly see where fantasy has been skillfully grafted on to reality. Most of the Urban Fantasy I read is set in the US. I’ve traveled and worked there enough to be able to recognize Butcher’s Chicago or Andrew’s Atlanta but I know that there are many cultural nuances that I miss. With “Dire Straits”, it’s as if I’m moved to the 3D, HD, Surround Sound version of Urban Fantasy. These are people I recognise, even if they are Vampires or Demons.

“Dire Straits” has a very English tone, with different attitudes to conflict (at least in public), strong links to class-based elites, a very different, non-gun-carrying kind of police force, and neat twists that apply British attitudes to race and immigration to Tribers, even quoting Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech. London provides an atmospheric backdrop for the action, including mansions that Vampires have owned for centuries and a very dramatic scene set inside Big Ben. British humour and wordplay makes the dialogue richer and British swearing takes it well outside the US romance writers’ guidelines. Still, Josh Whedon was able to slip words like “Bugger” and “Sod off” into “Buffy” scripts because the American censors didn’t understand them. I wonder what they’d make of the recurring use of “Smegging Hell” here? They’d probably object to the “Hell” part.

The Vampires and Witches in the book are very English. The Vampires put on a front of being upper class Eton and Oxford types who would regard it as bad form to lose control in public. Quite different from the almost-Mafia image Vampires are often given. The Witches come across as eccentric Glastonbury Festival meets Alternative Intellectual types.

Part of the plot is set in what, in American Urban Fantasy, might be a Vampire Academy, except that the main character is desperate NOT to become a Vampire, the Vampire tutors inflict death-by-PowerPoint in nightly training sessions and the “students” range from upper class privileged types through to total Chavs.

In England, names mean a lot. When J.K. Rowling names a character Dolores Umbridge we all know what to expect: someone who spreads sadness and takes offense easily. Helen Harper chooses her names with care but one of them made me stumble. A lawyer in the story is called Harry D’Agneau (pardon me if the spelling is wrong – I listened to the audiobook). I think the name is meant to make him exotic, posh but something of an outsider, perhaps like Michael Portillo. The problem is that the name translates literally to Harry of Lamb. I kept thinking of him as Larry the Lamb. Not at all the image that was intended.

I was disappointed in Tantor Press’ choice of narrator. This book cried out for an English narrator like Emma Fielding or Finty Williams, who could have extracted every ounce of class difference from the various accents. Tantor chose Saskia Maarleveld, who comes from New Zealand. She is a very good narrator but she can’t sustain the English accents over the whole book. I looked up the narrator because I couldn’t figure out why Bo Blackman’s accent ranges from “I went to a very good public school” through to “I’ve recently returned from a few years in Australia”. Saskia Maarleveld also lacks the range to differentiate the voices of the many male characters, a curious number of whom seem to be Irish or Welsh, although the text gives no indication of this. I still enjoyed listening to Saskia Maarleveld but I felt that I was missing out on the performance that could have been there.

I devoured “Dire Straits” in a couple of days. It works as a stand-alone novel with a satisfying ending. The good news is that it’s the first in a series with a set of long story arcs. So far this month I’ve read two more: “New Order” and “High Stakes” and each was better than the last. I’m now waiting for the fourth book, “Red Angel” to be released as an audiobook.

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