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Review: March Violets by Philip Kerr

Berlin NoirThe verdict is in!

4 out of 5 Stars

The version I have:
Published by Penguin 2012.

Bought with help from RegionMidt.

The cover picture, is the version I have. Other versions are available. I haven’t seen them sold separately, but looking on the man’s website, at cover designs for the individual titles, I never want to. Truly dreadful.

March Violets is the first book of Philip Kerr’s Berlin Noir trilogy. As they are described in several places I can see as a ’trilogy,’ it would seem to suggest that the first three books – March Violets, The Pale Criminal and A German Requiem – were either intended to be the only three books about Bernie Gunther, but the series proved a success (I don’t know) and Kerr followed on. Or, that they are interlinked in some way, the stories similar, about the same characters, or a similar theme. As I’ve only read the first of the ‘trilogy’ I can say as yet. I have read one of the later Bernie Gunther thrillers, but that was most definitely not set in 1930’s (or ‘40s) Berlin.

Bernie Gunther, a 38-year-old ex-policeman, has become a Private Investigator and a new case begins with the investigation of the theft of a diamond necklace from the wealthy industrialist Herman Six’s daughter Grete’s house. Just ask Grete, you’d think. Problem is, both she and her husband appear to have been killed in the break in, and the house has been set on fire. Gunther must use all his resources and those of his informants, call in favours, and go in debt for new ones. He runs into those at the top of the Nazi heap – like Hermann Goering – and those trawling the bottom of the pecking order, such as the delightful ‘Red Dieter.’ A tortuous tale of deceit, corruption, anti-corruption, the Olympic Games (never thought you’d see the words ‘corruption’ and ‘the olympic Games ‘in the same sentence, eh?), mistaken identity, grisly murders, extortion, have I missed anything? Oh yeah, and a visit to Dachau concentration camp. And there’s an explanation of the title March Violets – what’s not to like?

Nothing can compare with David Downing for ‘this sort of thing’ for me – books set in (Nazi) Germany just before, during and after the Second World War. The feeling that he has actually invented time-travel and actually HAS been back to the period he writes about. There’s no other explanation for writing that convincingly. However, to be fair, this is the first Bernie Gunther book of the series and only the second one I’ve read, so it’s early days yet, for both Bernie, Philip and me. And there’s actually more meat in the plot than a fair few of the Alan Fursts I’ve read. Gunther is an interesting character. Intuitive, clever and amusing. Perhaps written a bit too amusing on some occasions and he does seem to get away with saying inappropriately funny things to inappropriate people than perhaps would actually have happened. The wisecracks mostly work, never descend to Roger Moore James Bond banal quip-territory and as I know from having read a later novel, do wear off with time.

It all hangs together very well, is very carefully and logically – for the time, of course – plotted and is all in all, a thoroughly good and interesting read. Kerr has clearly gone after a kind of Humphrey Bogart type Sam Spade sort of wise-cracking gumshoe type thing. Set in Nazi Germany. And you know what? I think he may well have done it.

Buy March Violets at The Book Depository

Me, on Goodreads

Review: ‘Hannibal, Enemy of Rome’ by Ben Kane

Hannibal Enemy of Rome
The verdict: 5 of 5 Stars

Hannibal, Enemy of Rome is book 1 of Ben Kane’s Hannibal trilogy.

I read the hardback version, bought with my own hard-earned…

Here’s what the version I have says about the story:

The great Carthaginian General, Hannibal, has never forgotten the defeat and humiliation of his father by Rome. Now he plans his revenge and the destruction of the old enemy.

Soldier of Carthage
While Hannibal prepares for war, the young son of one of his most trusted military commanders goes on an innocent adventure with his best friend – and disappears.

Captured by pirates (no, not that sort), put up for sale in the slave market, one of the boys is sold as a Gladiator, the other as a field slave. They believe they will never see home or family again.

A world ablaze
But their destiny – interwoven and linked with that of their Roman masters – is to be an extraordinary one. The devastating war unleashed upon Rome by Hannibal, will last for nearly twenty years. It will change their lives – and history – for ever.

It’s been a good while since I read a Ben Kane, however, on the evidence of this magnificent, enthralling, captivating book, I’ve really been missing out and is something I intend to rectify – and quickly.

First of all, it’s a long one – it’s a good 150 pages before the man himself puts in an appearance, for example. However, there’s hardly a sentence, a word even, wasted the whole way through. I was glued to it the whole way through and by the end, I found myself wishing it had been twice as long. It’s long, but still too short. Good then that it’s the first volume in a trilogy. Gooder still…that I have the others lined up on the shelf over there.

To be honest, sometimes, (even) I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why I thought a book was so good. Then I think, does it even matter? No. At those times, maybe it’s just best to sit back and enjoy the ride. Then…’enjoy,’ that’s the point, isn’t it? I read to enjoy a good story about something I’m interested in. Or not, that makes me interested in it, because it’s a good book. That’s Hannibal.

So, what did I enjoy? Well, Ben Kane does have the (deserved) reputation – in my book anyway – for writing battle scenes that are perhaps a cut (!) above the others. However, excellent battle scenes apart, it was the verbal cut and thrusts, jabs straight to the heart – and of course the final delivery of the death blow – of the Senate debate scenes between Publius and Marcus Minucius Rufus that really impressed and will stay with me. The crackle of tension, the ebb and flow, the poise and grace, the delicate, ‘crikey, it could go either way here’ balance, leading us to the final coup de grace. Superb writing is superb writing, whatever the genre. And this, that, is superb writing.

I thought the tension between the Carthaginian brothers was 99% believable. There were a couple of minor occasions where they clearly, in the real world, have reacted differently. In making the people different to us, in that they lived 2,000-odd years ago, but clearly like us in many ways, so we relate to them, you surely have to, as a reader and a writer, stick with the thought ‘what would I do in that situation?’ Then when you’re absolutely sure that you and anyone you know, would have belted the other brother one, for instance, and he doesn’t, he says ‘fair enough, lets get on with it,’ it sticks a little. No matter.

Carthaginians and Romans are treated even-handedly. No good guys and bad guys. I suppose there could have been a temptation to treat the Carthaginians more favourably, as the underdog, perhaps, the Romans less so. I think Ben has avoided taking sides, to free the story – and himself – from the reader’s own perceived confines, with one eye on how the rest of the story has to unfold. Because the temptation of writing what at least I was expecting, the ‘plucky small guy up against the evil Empire’ must have been very great.

I’ve been incredibly fortunate in my time, and especially of late, to read some truly exceptional books set at various points of the Roman era. Hannibal, Enemy of Rome continues that disturbingly good trend. Highly recommended.


Buy Hannibal, Enemy of Rome at The Book Depository

Me, on Goodreads

Review: The King’s Assassin – Angus Donald

The King's AssassinThe verdict: 6 of 5 Stars

The King’s Assassin is book 7 of The Outlaw Chronicles

AD1215. England is being bled dry, lead to rack and ruin and to the edge of full-scale civil war – by its King. Following the death of his older brother, King Richard (he of the Lion Heart), John has had a free hand to do pretty much as he pleases. Finances permitting. And when his finances don’t permit? He sends his men to take yours. As Robin and especially Alan, find out. They also find out that, despite fighting in the name of their King in countless battles on foreign soil, their King doesn’t give a hoot, it’s all about the money. And about the re-claiming of his French territories. Which, if you’re with us from the previous book, were lost due to the King’s dithering and downright treachery. So, Robin and Alan are forced to take part in another foreign campaign, hoping to restore both the Kings French possessions and their finances. When this doesn’t quite come off, they begin to look inwards, at England. They subsequently find they’re not the only ones who have had enough of their King’s profligacy with money and other people’s lives. They find themselves caught up in a plot not only to curb the King’s powers – tricky, as these are God-given – but also his life. One of those will happen.

(With all the behind the scenes work Angus has him do here, not to mention the land he owns and the troops he uses to speed the path to Runnymead, we’re all gonna have to take another look at the Magna Carta, see if historians haven missed Robin Hood’s name on there all these years).

The presentation of the story is as it has been since the first book. However, this time, as the Alan doing the remembering, is getting on a bit, the opening, ending and mid-story ‘present-day’ sections are now narrated by a monk at the monastery where old Alan lives. He’s been there some years, it seems – he is now 70, his eyesight is failing and his hands are unable to grip the writing instruments. Luckily for us and Angus, it seems his memory is not suffering too much, so he is able to dictate his memories to this young monk. How he gets to be in the monastery, isn’t clear, though the ending does hint at something. Something I would really, really – and have said so before – like to see developed. I’d like to see books about ‘Old Alan’, post-Robin Alan, as I’ve been consistently awed by the poignancy of Angus’ writing in these sections.

As for ‘Young Alan,’ he’s still an irritating, self-righteous, holier than thou, little shit. Only rescued by his ability to let his sword do the thinking and generally going against the majority of the 10 Commandments, handed down personally by the God he reveres so much. Even Robin’s legendary – in this series anyway – patience, must be sorely tested and it is, by Alan’s foolhardy, short-sighted, impatience. No sooner done, than said. No sooner said, than done. Robin doesn’t always manage to keep a lid on his irritation at pulling Alan’s arse out the fire he himself has started. Actually, it is appropriate – given the series’ premise – that it is Robin’s character has undergone perhaps the most notable change through the books so far. From a mythical-type figure in Outlaw – to national – sometimes international – statesman, state maker and now, King-saver. He’s come in from the forest, in to the palaces.

And here’s where I’ve long thought that if there were a problem with the books, it was that Robin, and the stories, spent so much – too much – time out of Sherwood, our of England and in France. The series might have been touted as a re-imagining of the Robin Hood legend, but I’ll put money on most people imagining, it would re-imagine the legend in England, in Sherwood, in particular. The first book fit the brief, to a T. The second, was set away on the Crusades – as most people have seen the Kevin Costner version, I’d think most went along with that. But when the third and fourth and so on came and went without a hint of Sherwood, Robin a nobleman and living in Yorkshire, for goodness’ sake and nary a sign of the Sheriff of Nottingham – well, even I started to get a bit restless. I had some initial reservations here too, primarily when I read “…Robin Hood and his men are dragged into the war against the French in Flanders” on the inner cover blurb, and I will admit to first thinking ‘O no, here we go again…’ However, I will also admit to being thus totally unprepared for how comprehensively blown away I would be by such a well-plotted, paced and written book. On reflection, apart from all that, I don’t think there’s any surprise in that my enjoyment of this is in direct relation to the amount of time the story spends in England – Nottingham even!

Having read The Iron Castle and a couple of the previous ones, will help you here as well, as characters and themes pop up to add extra spice. This too, was one of the things I enjoyed about the book, the complexity and ambition of the plot seemed to be a level above. In fact, The King’s Assassin might just be the best of the series so far. Full of vivid descriptions, some poignant commentary on the state of England at the time and, of course, Angus’ trademark set piece battle action – you are there. The words come to life, looking at the pages is like watching a film. Better than a film. You are there. You are there. Watching them, feeling their tension, tasting their food, smelling the smells…at Robin’s – and especially Alan’s – side, parrying the sword thrusts, stopping arrows with your shield and staggering away from the bloody battlefield, wondering how you survived. Exciting, tense, gripping and fun, an absolute pleasure to read and muse upon. A wonderful book, really, really wonderful. Can’t say fairer than that.


*You thought I was gonna put their, there, eh?

Buy The King’s Assassin at The Book Depository

Outlaw : my review
Holy Warrior : my review
King’s Man : my review
Warlord : my review
Grail Knight : my review
The Iron Castle : my review

All posts mentioning Angus Donald at Speesh Reads

Me, at Goodreads

Review: Rome’s Fallen (Eagle Vespasian IV) – Robert Fabbri

Rome's Fallen EagleMy rating : 5 of 5 stars

What a relief to be done with Caligula! Not just for Vespasian and the rest of the Roman population of AD41, but also for us in 2015 reading Robert Fabbri’s excellent books. In the nicest possible sense, it is good that Caligula has met his just desserts. He cast a terrible, malignant shadow over the previous book, False God of Rome. His unpredictability and not all that slow descent into madness, was fantastic writing from Robert Fabbri, but hard to stomach sometimes. That made it’s impression (rightly so) even more forceful, I felt.

Anyway, Caligula is stabbed in the vitals on the way home from yet another debauched theatre visit. By a hooded man. However, despite having done just about everyone, apart from Caligula’s wife, a tremendous favour, the Roman bunting is a little slow to be put out. This is die to the only alternative to Caligula as Emperor is Claudius (CLAVDIVS to give him his proper Shenley Court Comprehensive shool-watching the Derek Jakobi TV version I CLAVDIVS-name). ‘What’s wrong with that?’ you who haven’t read the story so far, or skipped your school History lessons, might cry: Well, to bring you up to speed, the only problem with that, with Clavdivs is, he a drooling, stammering, half-idiot. Perfect as a politician then. Well, he is the only game in town – for now – that most can agree on. The best least worst solution to the succession. However, he is surrounded by powerful men. Both physically, in the shape of the feared Prætorian guard, and with Narcissus, Pallas and Callistus, three of the schemingest schemers it will ever be the Romans’ misfortune – but our good fortune – to come up against. Each is seemingly trying to out-do the other in proving their loyalty to Clavdivs by proving to the Roman people, the mob, that Clavdivs is a worthy Emperor. And what better way to do that than have the Roman army go off in search of a stolen Legion Eagle in Germania. Not just any stolen Eagle, but the one that was lost at the scene of possibly Rome’s greatest – as in worst – defeat. The catastrophic, humiliating defeat 40 years previously in the Germanian Teutoburg forests. Capturing and returning the Eagle would go a long way to restoring Roman pride and ensuring Clavdivs’ popularity. Not to mention subduing the troublesome Germanians and setting the Empire nicely up for another round of expansion, where Clavdivs can prove his worth by out-doing even the great Julius Caesar – not to mention Caligula – and conquering Britannia.

Luckily for Robert Fabbri and us, it is Vespasian who is sent off on what most believe is an impossible mission that even Ethan Hunt would think twice about. That of finding and bringing the Eagle back. I can’t now remember whether that is fiction Robert F has put in, or actual fact, based on likelihood, but either way, it works. And how! As we – Vespasian and us – escape from Rome’s clutches, the story and the writing blossom, flow and soar. If something can blossom and soar at the same time. Incredible stuff. So exciting, compulsive and compelling. I hate cliches to do with book reading – you try ‘devouring’ a book one day, can’t be done – but I really did not want to put the book down. Even to have my tea. Or my breakfast. And I’ll be sending the marriage guidance counselling bill direct to Mr Fabbri. It engages immediately and never lets go – not until the end anyway. The story, the character, the author have really been set free by coming out from the stifling confines of the Caligula period. The hunt for the Eagle’s residing place in the threatening, mysterious forests of Germania, is done a little like Southern Comfort, if you’ve ever seen that film, mixed with Predator. Remember what happened in those two and you’ll get what’s going on here. It really is done so well, the sense of threat is palpable. Superb writing! Historical Fiction, any kind od Fiction even, at its very best. Very filmic too, which may or may not be a coincidence…

I’m going to go on a limb and say it’s one of the two best books I’ve read this year. The other being Greg Iles’ The Bone Tree. For sure in the best three anyway. Certainly the best Roman-period book I can remember ever reading. It really reads like a modern-day thriller, set in AD 41. Robertus Ludlumus. And it’s the fourth in the series, how can THAT be? Shouldn’t people be running on auto-pilot at this point? Not Mr F. If you like your action fast and your Romans and Barbarians furious, then pick up Rome’s Fallen Eagle now! Go on, do it! (You see what I did there?).

Vespasian. Tribune of Rome (Vespasian I): my review
Rome’s Executioner (Vespasian II): my review
False God of Rome (Vespasian III): my review

All posts on Speesh Reads mentioning Robert Fabbri

Buy Rome’s Fallen Eagle (Vespasian IV) at The Book Depository

Me, at Goodreads

Review: The Sword of the Templars – Paul Christopher

The Sword of the TemplarsHere’s what the back of the book has to say:

A dark mystery spanning the past…

A covert war raging in the present…

An ancient enemy bent on hiding a truth that would rock the foundations of mankind.

Though I’m guessing Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, etc, are probably thinking “the foundations of what, now?”

After a lifetime on the front line, Army Ranger John Holliday has resigned himself to ending his career teaching at West Point Military Academy. But when his uncle passes away, Holliday discovers a medieval sword amongst his belongings – sinisterly wrapped

can something be wrapped ‘sinisterly’? Only if you’re going ‘mwah-ha-ha-ha! And twirling the ends of your moustache while doing said wrapping, I suspect

in Adolf Hitler’s personal battle standard. Then someone viciously burns down

can something be burnt viciously?

his uncle’s house and Holliday’s secret fears about the mysterious sword ring alarmingly true.

Holiday must delve into the past and piece together the puzzle that was his uncle’s life – his involvement with the enigmatic warriors known as the Knights Templar. But his search for answers soon becomes a race against a ruthless and cunning opponent, willing to die for their cause. Can Holliday live long enough to reveal the treacherous but critical truth?7

My rating : 3 of 5 stars

It’s not the best, though it’s a long way from the worst of its type. I think maybe it could have done with being a bit longer. Of having more time to fold out the characters and the situations. It wasn’t written in the note-form seemingly favoured by Lee Child (in the first ‘Jack Reacher’ I’ve read anyway), but things do seem to fall a little too easily in place and I missed some further development. The action comes thick and fast and I think it could have done with a few ‘breathers,’ a couple of ‘slower’ sections added in. There are some fairly thinly papered-over plot holes – they never seem to return car-hires – but nothing too alarming. Nothing to stop you racing through this almost as fast as the characters. Having said that, it was a lot better than some of the short reviews I saw when I glanced at it on Amazon/Audible.

There are plenty of interesting information nuggets packed in here too, some I was aware of, but plenty I wasn’t. It’s certainly not a Dan Brown-alike, which may have disappointed the publishers, but considering the fact that there are, as far as I can see, at least nine books in the series so far, he must have been considered to be doing something right. There’s enough to have me looking for where I can get hold of the second in the series before they redesign the covers anyway.


Buy The Sword of the Templars at The Book Depository

All Speesh Reads posts mentioning Paul Christopher

Me, at Goodreads

Review: The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø

The RedbreastMy Rating 4 of 5 stars

I’ve got an interview saved here, where Jo Nesbø (yes, I have an Ø on my keyboard) says that The Redbreast is his ‘most personal novel.’ The article is from 2014, which would mean The Redbreast is his most personal novel of them all, so far. Not knowing Mr Nesbø, I can’t say if that’s true, but having now got to number three in his Harry Hole series, I can safely say that from an enjoyment point of view, this is certainly the best so far. The most satisfying, the most logical as well. But that I mean, that it is set in Norway. Him being Norwegian and all. Apart from a marketing Nesbø to the world angle, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why the first two novels were set in Australia and Thailand, respectively. There was nothing in them to suggest that the ‘a foreigner abroad’ angle was even considered, let alone explored. Being back in Norway, Hole and Nesbø are back on familiar territory and it shows in a generally excellent story/book.

Harry is detecting in Norway, but gets caught up in a controversy, shall we say, to do with a visiting President of the USA. He is pushed upstairs to more or less shuffle paperclips and pass hot potatoes on to other departments. The story, seemingly unrelatedly at the beginning, also concerns Norwegians who, in World War II, fought for the Germans. Several characters are involved – and you better write some of the names down, as they’re sure gonna help you figuring out this one – and gradually, a link with ‘something going on’ in the far right, New Nazi circles in present day Norway becomes possible, not exactly clear, but dangerously close to ‘home.’

That doesn’t mean it’s praise all the way. I felt that – until at least half way, where the WWII angle was being set up – the best bits were the ones without Harry Hole. And, the slow descent into alcholholism angle still doesn’t work. Just makes him weak, not ‘flawed’ as I guess was the hope. It’s not as if he gets any inspiration from the bottom of a glass. Makes me just hum, la-la-la until he’s sober again and can get on with figuring – or not – what the hell it’s all about. Oh, and as with the previous two, what seems to be the end of the story, the case, with everyone getting their coats and hats on and saying “see you on Monday then,” turns out not to be the end. As on the way to the bus, HH realises just exactly what they’ve missed – these sort of endings are usually set off by the hero noticing something in a shop, or somewhere completely unrelated to the case in any way, but being the detective they are – and only they could have made the connection because that’s what makes them so good – making a connection that everyone has missed. It’s often a child who somehow sets the link going, by saying something completely unrelated to the case. It’s a cliché. It’s also a waste of time, as you know it ain’t the person they’ve nailed for the crime because – look at all those pages left!

However, I enjoyed this one more than the first two and that’s a good sign. And speaking of signs – were there some loose ends left dangling here, that might be developed and cleared up in later books? I perhaps wouldn’t have bought this book myself (I was given it as a present) after reading the first two, but I will be reading the next in the series, one way or another, to find out.

Buy The Redbreast at The Book Depository

All Jo Nesbø posts on Speesh Reads

Goodreads page for The Redbreast

Me, on Goodreads

Review: Slash and Burn

Slash and Burn

Slash and Burn by Matt Hilton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was always going to like this one. The title being a steal (probably not) from one of the best from one of my favourite bands, the Manic Street Preachers – and Mr Hilton liking Robert E Howard’s Conan the Barbarian and all. Oh, and a big hug and extra points for featuring my surname as a town. Erm…That aside, the book is a rip-roaring ride through small-town America and big-town crime. With the emphasis on the rip and also the roaring.

Our hero, Joe Hunter, is minding his own business when the sister (“She was the double of Kate. Slightly shorter, slightly heavier of build, but she would have passed as Kate’s twin rather than her older sibling.” So, different, but identical?) of an ex-Special Forces colleague (we’re already being put in the frame of mind, by the book jacket blurb using ‘mate’ to bring the ordinary side of Joe Hunter forward and make sure that we feel ‘well, yeah, you do that for a ‘mate’ don’t you?), gets in touch to enlist Hunter’s help in finding her sister, who has disappeared. From there on, we learn that the sister has uncovered something about dirty business and crime in a small American city and the helping hand Hunter offers is in serious danger of being shot, chopped or otherwise forcibly removed.

One thing I did wonder while reading, is why isn’t Hunter’s English/Manchester (?) accent used more in the stories? I’ve only read three so far, but plan to read them all, and have the next few lined up (I’m trying to find them all as hardcovers…you understand how it is, don’t you?), so maybe it comes in more, later. Anyway, the accent is mentioned once (as I remember) here, but not made much of. I’d have thought it was a rich seam to mine, if only for spreading confusion –  even fear? – amongst the American criminal fraternity Hunter seems to come up against. It would also neatly separate Hunter from the ‘Reacher.’ If you know what I mean. The good point about the criminals Hunter is up against here actually, is that despite the cover’s ‘psychopath’ label, they aren’t. Not really. They’re not the ‘don’t get mad, get even’ variety, they get mad and they get even, but they are, how can I say, more understandable – and more threatening –  for not being barking at the moon-mad. Making a nice change from books one and two. Hunter’s other difference from Another of this Sort, is that he has friends who help him. I think Liam Neeson as Brian Mills in Taken.

It is still sometimes a bumpy ride here and there, as Matt Hilton does seem to feel the need to be sure we know Hunter knows that it isn’t really ok to go around and feel ok about killing bad guys. It’s written as if Hunter is convincing himself, when really it is Matt Hilton convincing us that he and Hunter are actually on the moral side of law and order, rather than getting your retaliation in first and ask questions after anarchy. I think we’re all onboard with Hunter being the good guy here and so would be along with a ‘end justifying the means’ story without worrying about if it was strictly politically correct. We always have to be told “well, he hit me first!” So that it’s ok then to enjoy the baddies getting theirs’.

All in all, my over-riding impression was that with the third book here, the series is really getting stuck in. Under my skin, anyway. It’s getting into its stride, developing, becoming better – the character of Joe Hunter and the writing of Matt Hilton. There are good signs of a distinctive style to both and I’m feeling I was right to get hold of further books before I’d read the previous, if you get my drift.


Buy Slash and Burn at The Book Depository

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