This Census-Taker written by China Miéville

Title: This Census-Taker

Author: China Miéville

Publisher: Pan Macmillan, Picador

Date of Publication: 25 February 2016

Number of Pages: 210

Rating: 2 stars

Summary: After witnessing a profoundly traumatic event, a boy is left alone in a remote house on a hilltop with his increasingly deranged parent. When a stranger knocks on his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation are over—but by what authority does this man keep the meticulous records he carries? Is he the boy’s friend? His enemy? Or something altogether other?

Title: The Secret Dead

Author: S.J. Parris


Date of Publication: 12 September 2013

Number of Pages: 52

Rating: 4 stars

Summary: Naples, 1566. During a sweltering summer, eighteen-year-old Giordano Bruno takes his final vows at San Domenico Maggiore and is admitted to the Dominican Order – despite doubts over his tendency to ask difficult questions. Assisting in the infirmary, Bruno witnesses an illicit autopsy performed on the body of a young woman. Her corpse reveals a dark secret, and Bruno suspects that hers may not have been an accidental death. His investigation leads him to a powerful figure who wants to keep the truth buried – and Bruno is forced to make a choice between his future in the Order, and justice for an innocent victim and her grieving family…


This is a tale of two books. Two novella. One, a complete story, the other, a vague, rambling and incomplete work.

The premise of Miéville’s story is interesting but the stranger that arrives only does so in the last few pages. At random moments there are cryptic mentions of men who live by the water and that the father’s wife came from a similar region. Nothing is ever confirmed or denied. People randomly come and go and there seems to be no point to any of it.

Overall, there are too many ideas for a novella and none of the threads are tied up neatly.

Is the boy, the storyteller, a man telling us his past or is he still a boy and the reader is a viewer as events unfold?

Where does the story take place? Is it a modern country but one of poverty and class warfare or is it another world entirely?

Why is the strange disappearance of the mother not investigated?

Why is the father allowed to continue his life without seeming to face any censure?

Why does no one think it strange he  makes keys out of random junk?

Why is there a group of kids running around, again, ignored by the adu,its of the town?

Why does the stranger appear, seemingly at random, investigate a deep pit and then convince him to with him to God knows where?

Did anyone else read this as a half thought out commentary on society, misogyny, domestic abuse and kidnapping?

Compare this to Parris’s novella and it’s painfully obvious just how under prepared Miéville’s work is. In The Secret Dead the reader is presented with a neat and precise, start, middle and end. The story, all 52 pages of it is perfectly crafted. It gives the reader a complete story. All the threads are tied up and the only question the reader is left with is, when can I start reading the rest of the series.

I know Miéville didn’t set out to write a bad book as that’s never the intention of a writer but This Census-Taker is a flawed piece of work that simply doesn’t work. I couldn’t recommend it to anyone.


The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

Essex Serpent Sarah Perry

Title: The Essex Serpent
Author: Sarah Perry
Publisher: Serpent’s Tail
Date of Publication: 27 May 2016

Rating: 5 stars


Summary: Set in Victorian London and an Essex village in the 1890’s, and enlivened by the debates on scientific and medical discovery which defined the era, The Essex Serpent has at its heart the story of two extraordinary people who fall for each other, but not in the usual way.

They are Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is a well-to-do London widow who moves to the Essex parish of Aldwinter, and Will is the local vicar. They meet as their village is engulfed by rumours that the mythical Essex Serpent, once said to roam the marshes claiming human lives, has returned. Cora, a keen amateur naturalist is enthralled, convinced the beast may be a real undiscovered species. But Will sees his parishioners’ agitation as a moral panic, a deviation from true faith. Although they can agree on absolutely nothing, as the seasons turn around them in this quiet corner of England, they find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart.

Review: I have nothing but admiration and awe for Sarah Perry. There are so many highlights I could spoil the entire book but instead I’ll share the most poignant part.

One of the characters is depicted sharpening a pencil with a razor and an almost tangible memory of my Grandad burst from the page. I remember he always had a pencil sharpened this way. It also made me remember the old, battered suitcase, full of felt pens and pencils that were kept for all the grandkids to use. I don’t know what happened to that. Thanks for the memory, Sarah. It makes the book so much more for me.

The Essex Serpent is one of my contenders for book of 2016.

(Read between 4-18 June 2016)

The Murder Farm Written By Andrea Maria Schenkel


ARC received from NetGalley in return for an honest review.

5 out of 5 stars

My village had become the home of “the murder farm,” and I couldn’t get the story out of my mind.

This story has something pervasive in its language and in the story telling. I am unable to get the words and the images and the ideas out of my mind. My imagination is consumed with images and I can feel the cold, hear the storm, and imagine how lonely it would be for those living on the farm.

A reader of this book must approach this book in a different fashion to most crime novels – it is unconventional and therein lies its cleverness. The story is linear but fragments around multiple narrators, each unique voice telling their part and how they connect with murder victims. Each narrator, it seems, has no agenda or anything to hide, however, each one unreliable, spinning the story to their own histories and experiences. Even the victims and their relatives seem sympathetic without being likeable. The persistent references to “tittle-tattle” suggest to me that each of them knows far more than they are willing to divulge.

Some books are impressive because of the story they tell – others are impressive because of the feelings they create. This book is impressive for both story and feeling. The writing style itself is perfectly pitched to keep the reader wound up and wanting to turn the page. The book itself isn’t overly long and so it is a relatively quick read. On occasion, a short story suffers from lack of substance but there is no hint of this problem in The Murder Farm. There were few descriptive parts throughout but Schenkel always provides just enough for you to imagine the scene. Fans of Norwegian crime dramas will enjoy this book as will fans of cinema as this book would be easily adapted to tv or film.

Originally published in 2006 by Nautilus, translated in 2008 by Anthea Bell and first published in the US by Quercus, this book truly deserves the positive attention it is receiving.

ISBN: 978-1-62365-167-1

The Rise and Fall of Great Powers written by Tom Rachman

4 out of 5 stars

ARC from NetGalley – no financial incentive was received for this review. Please note; quotes are from the unedited edition and may differ in the final version.

Matilda “Tooly” Zylberberg is not a character who suffers from an undeveloped chronology, far from it. Tooly has lived many lives in her thirty odd years and when we meet her, she is running a bookshop, “The World’s End”, in Wales and with the rise of Amazon, her sales are fast declining.

Enter the shades of her childhood, Paul with whom she travels to Thailand as an eight year old; Sarah, mysterious and irresponsible; Venn, enigmatic but forever changing; and Humphrey, the kindly Russian who teaches Tooly to be an intellectual. Each taking on the position of role model and drawing the reader into an elegant web of secrets and deceptions that span the globe and nearly all of Tooly’s life.

Rachman’s characters are kinetic. Even when they seem their most settled there is an undertow lurking to drag them away. The only semi-stable character is Fogg, the eccentric assistant at the bookshop.

Initially, this book courted disaster. The characters were all lovely, you wanted to like them and somehow you couldn’t help wanting them to be your friend. Especially with lines like If ever a man fancied her these days, she suspected of him of low standards, of being a goat in heat. However, just as you start to think the entire story is going to be sweet and light the undertow grabs you and you’re dragged into the story. For me, this was the only time I felt there was an opportunity to stop reading.

Such is the strength of this story it wasn’t until the end that I realised just how much the people you love and trust can let you down in life – or more simply, show themselves not to be the person you though them. The truths of this novel, for me were sad and deeply realistic, as too are the elements of redemption.

Rachman also has a knack for observation that does not sound like a diatribe of negativity. And walking had become an obstacle course, pedestrians inebriated on handheld devices, jostling one another as they passed, glancing up dimly at the shared world, then back into the bottomless depths projected from shining glass.

It is clear why some have compared this work with that of Donna Tartt and for me, the intense characters are what lifts this story away from being just another story about just another girl. As Venn so aptly puts it Everyone’s their own world, and this book takes you further into understanding just how fractured from each other we truly are.

Skull in the Ashes written by Peter Kaufman


University of Iowa Press
Publication date – 15 September 2013

ARC from NetGalley

1.5 stars out of 5

On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero” Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club

Perhaps this is a strange quote to use at the beginning of a review, however, it summarises my feelings perfectly at the end of this book. Skull in the Ashes caught my eye because the cover art told me that inside was a world of murder, mystery, intrigue, and a gold rush manhunt but the outcome was weak, bland and problematic. Allow me to explain.

In 1897 the general store in Walford, Iowa, belonging to Frank Novak, burns to the ground. When the ashes are examined the charred remains of a body are found and it is discovered there are two possible victims, Frank Novak or Ed Murray. New forensic procedures and witness testimony determine the victim to be Murray. This discovery, circumstances of the night, combined with the three separate life insurance policies owned by Novak, ensure that a manhunt ensues to capture and prosecute the suspected murderer.  It is at this point where the real problems with the text start to develop.

Kaufman, perhaps from a lack of editorial direction, often includes information which seems irrelevant to the overall progress of the story. Multiple instances of this occur; the first one that truly bothered me was the repetitive references made to mosquitoes. The second occurred shortly after. Kaufman introduces a woman “…with the lilting Irish name of Sadie O’Hara…” (31%) and in the following paragraph writes, “O’Hara was said to have information on Novak and Jack Swift…but when Perrin asked her about these two men, she replied that she had not seen either one in Dawson City.” My interpretation of this statement is that she did not actually know who Novak or Swift were. Compounding my issue with this statement are three things; why the reader needs to be informed of her nationality, why it’s important for her to be included though she has no information and why she is named when the man who confirms Novak’s identity is anonymous and remains so despite the footnote. Compounding this are the segments of text which appear to be almost identical to earlier portions bar a few textual changes. This repetition made me reflect on who Kaufman’s intended audience is.

There also seemed to be a distinct ethnocentric element to the text. For example, “The Chilkoot were a whipcord-tough group of men and women,” (24%); the generalisation of other First Nations people as “Indians” – correct for the historical context but inappropriate in the 21st century, especially for a University publication. The, already mentioned reference to the Irish Sadie O’Hara and a reference to the German Nels Degn and his “strange sounding” name. It is interesting to note some of the other “strange” names recorded in the text but are not drawn to the reader’s attention because of the assumption they are “American”.  Let me be clear – I am not making any accusation of racism, merely reflecting on the inconsistencies.

To be perfectly honest, this book is not “an impressive piece of historical detective work” as Robert Loerzel states nor is it, as Patrick Millikan writes “…a gripping page turner.” For me, it was a dreadful disappointment. Kaufman has taken a fascinating era of history, which could have covered and given so much and turned it into a chequered, rather dull set of notes. It is unfortunate that this reads like an unedited proof. Perhaps this book would have been better if it were a history of the American penitentiary system in Ohio during the late 19th century/early 20th century with the Novak murder as a case study. Skull in the Ashes suffers from what seems to be a lack of editorial direction.

I truly do dislike writing negative reviews as Kaufman states Skull in the Ashes is the work of six years and I can appreciate the hard work and effort he has put into researching and writing this finished product.

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