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  • Writer's pictureMarcus Coles

Reading List - 2023

Updated: Jun 19

River God - Wilbur Smith ****

I have only recently discovered this author and am glad to have done so. River God is one of his most acclaimed and I can understand why. Taita is a genius poet, musician, politician, engineer, architect, artist and military strategist. He is also a eunuch and a slave. When the daughter of his master Lord Intef marries Pharaoh, Taita follows and soon becomes embroiled in baby an adventure. There are many great characters in the book such as Lostris, Tanus, Kratas and Memnon. The book contains murders, attempted assassinations, romance, war, spirituality, bucket loads of politics and adventure. The fact that it is all set in 1700 BC makes the whole story exotic and intriguing. It is the beginning of his epic Egyptian series and well worth a read. I am no Egyptologist but I know the author is known for his expertise and thorough research. If you’re looking for an epic adventure up and down the great river Nile, then this is the novel for you.

The Haunting of Hill House - Shirley Jackson ***

Meh. I think I must have missed something or else was too detached while reading it. I’m aware of the book’s reputation and so actively sought it out in my endeavours to widen the scope of books I read. It started well and I was intrigued to read on but then never really felt like the book gripped me in a way it has so many others. Four strangers agree to spend a few days in a notoriously haunted house. Various frightening things occur which lead at least one of them to the brink of madness. I found parts of it interesting but not scary, and as an amateur writer myself, was keen to see how the author instils fear into her readers. On that score I don’t feel any further forward. For large parts of the story, the characters themselves didn’t seem to be scared and so I wonder whether their objective and distanced view of things affected me too. I can’t help but feel disappointed that I didn’t feel absorbed in the book or experience the terror of Hill House. Is it possible to be scared by a book? The search goes on.

The Kennedy Brothers - Richard D. Mahoney ****

The Kennedys are the royal family of the American political establishment. John was the charming and charismatic hero of WW2 who ascended the presidency at the tender age of 43. Bobby was the bulldog, the warrior, the one who faced down the mob and the unions. The sixties was such a fascinating decade when politics, Hollywood and organised crime all got entwined together. The Kennedy brothers were intimately acquainted with all three. John rubbed shoulders with the royalty of Tinsel Town from Marilyn Monroe to Frank Sinatra. The mob played a huge part in securing him the votes he needed to win the presidency. Their ire was understandable therefore when he appointed Bobby to be his Attorney General. He went after them with an intensity and conviction that put both brothers in the crosshairs of some very dangerous and angry men. No more so than Fidel Castro, the President of Cuba and staunch communist. Much of the book centres on events in Cuba, from the calamitous Bay of Pigs invasion to the Cuban missile crisis when the world teetered on the edge of nuclear war. That small country, ninety miles off the coast of Florida had such a huge impact on the lives of both men. I found Bobby to be the more interesting of the two. It seems clear to me that John wouldn’t have accomplished anything without his little brother. I may in the future read more about RFK. The author’s father was a friend of the Kennedys so you have to accept a certain level of subjectivity. Overall though I thought it was a balanced, interesting read. It wasn’t long winded or boring though I would have liked more info on the salacious endeavours of the brothers. I imagine there is a whole body of work out there on these two giants of American politics. If you’re looking for one, this is as good a place to start as any.

Bombshell - Mike Rothmiller ****

Marilyn Monroe, The Kennedys, Frank Sinatra, organised crime, politics, Hollywood, corruption and murder! It’s easy to see why the 1960s continues to fascinate. I haven’t read a book about Marilyn for 20 years but even so, lots of the story was familiar. In many ways her whole life was a tragedy but the events surrounding her death characterise so much of what was abhorrent about the world in which she lived. The book does a good job of offering a concise summary of her life and describes in detail the sordid private life of JFK. I found some of it a bit flat and repetitive. The first 60 pages were a slog and the denouement was anti-climactic. I thought the sequencing could have been better and the writing wasn’t always easy to follow (some very long sentences I had to read multiple times). The story of what happened on the run up to the murder and the murder itself were engaging. I couldn’t put the book down at this point. There was probably more info about the LAPD and the cover-up than about Marilyn and RFK though which got a little tiresome. I think most people will find this an interesting read and for all the Marilyn fans out there, this will be a valuable addition to the collection. I am interested in conspiracy theories in general but I don’t go along with them. In this case though I am inclined to believe that Marilyn was murdered. This book provided a compelling argument.

Goddess - Anthony Summers *****

I’ve read this book before. It was about twenty-five years ago when I was a teenager and something of a Marilyn Monroe aficionado. I loved it back then and nothing’s changed. I decided to reread it to assist me in my research for a novel I am planning. This is the Marilyn biography, the one to which all others are compared and this author’s seminal work. It’s a thorough and detailed analysis of her life from cradle to grave. It’s not sycophantic or worshipful but a warts and all look at the most famous woman who’s ever lived. In many ways it’s a tragic story of a messed up, lonely woman mistreated and abused by many of those in whom she placed her trust. She longed for fame and adoration but also for genuine love and affection. She wanted family and children and right until the end, hoped that those dreams would come true. She lived in fascinating times. The stars of Hollywood shone brightest in the fifties and sixties. The charisma of JFK and the threat of nuclear war dominated the political scene and organised crime was at its zenith. Marilyn Monroe was mixed up in all three and that makes for a remarkable story. The author does a superb job of weaving it all together toward a thrilling finale. The mystery surrounding her death is just as enthralling as it was back in August 1962. Accident? Suicide? Murder? There have been numerous revelations over the years, stories have changed and lies have been exposed. I found it really fun trying to sift through all the conflicting testimonies and ultimately piece together what actually happened in the last few hours of her life. Why was there no trace of drugs in her stomach? Was Bobby Kennedy there the day she died? Why did the account of Eunice Murray keep changing? What was Ralph Greenson up to? Was there an ambulance called to her house? I love the mystery and intrigue of it all. If you’re looking for a good biography and you’re interested in not just the glitz and glamour of the sixties but also the dark and sinister side of that decade, then check it out. It’s a fascinating read. As Marilyn once said, "I am good, but not an angel. I do sin, but I am not the devil. I am just a small girl in a big world trying to find someone to love."

The Shining - Stephen King **

I’m sorry, I just don’t get it. I don’t understand how I can read something so brilliant as ‘Salem’s Lot and then be so thoroughly disappointed by the widely-regarded classics, It and now The Shining. I was just bored, plain and simple. It dragged on and on, was weird and uninteresting. I kept waiting for it to pick up, grab me and scare me but I just got more impatient and frustrated with it. Jack, his wife Mary and their son Danny make their way to the Overlook Hotel at the start of winter. Jack is to be the caretaker over the winter while the hotel is closed. Danny has a peculiar ability which allows him to see and hear things others can’t. He soon becomes aware of a sinister presence in the hotel that exerts a strange power over them. No more so than over his Dad Jack who gradually goes mad as the hotel’s evil power subsumes him completely. This is such a loved and respected book with a plethora of five star ratings but I’m not feeling it, sorry! Maybe Stephen King isn’t for me.

Death of Kings - Conn Iggulden *****

Loved it. This book is the second in the series charting the life and adventures of Julius Caesar. He is a young man, a husband, father and exalted tribune. The story has pirates, sea battles, assassinations, land battles, politics, romance, treachery and loyalty. The writer has such a relaxed and accessible style that you could sit and read it for hours. The plot is fast-paced, always interesting and full of the characters you know from Ancient Rome. Pompey, Crassus, Cato and Spartacus all feature strongly and make it a riveting read. The author flies fast and loose with the truth which might offend the historical purists out there. He does admit this at the end but to be honest, it doesn’t bother me at all. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable to be offended by the historical inaccuracies. I loved it and look forward to reading the next instalment.

Last Bus to Woodstock - Colin Dexter ****

This is the second Inspector Morse novel I’ve read and I loved it. It is the first one of the series so it’s interesting to see the origins of the character and the dawning relationship with sergeant Lewis. They’re brilliant characters with a funny and unusual chemistry. Morse is brilliant and witty, amiable yet erratic. But he can be cantankerous and stubborn. Mild-mannered Lewis is often just trying to keep up. Sylvia Kaye is found murdered in a pub car park. She and an unknown woman hitched a ride to Woodstock but who with? And where is the other woman? Morse & Lewis track down the people involved but struggle to figure out exactly what has transpired. I found it an interesting plot and I love the author’s writing style. It’s the character of Morse that makes it such a fun read. I can’t wait to read the others.

The 13 Problems - Agatha Christie *****

I love Miss Marple and this little collection has made me love her even more. She and a small group of others are congregated together in one of their homes. One of them suggests that they all tell a story of which they have personal experience. It must have an element of mystery to it that demands a solution. One by one they regale the group with their tale and one by one they all try to solve the riddle. In each and every case it is the unassuming little old lady who solves the case. This is essentially a charming collection of short stories with Miss Marple centre stage. Some Christie novels which are supposedly Marple stories aren’t really because she only ends up playing a minor role. This is different because she and her matchless understanding of human nature wins the day every time. I really loved it. My favourite was A Christmas Tragedy but I enjoyed them all.

Maiwa's Revenge - H. Rider Haggard ***

This is a short novel charting more of Allan Quartermain’s hunting adventures through the wilds of Africa. If you haven’t come across these stories before, they’re excellent fast-paced thrill-rides through the African bush. The first half of the book has Allan telling the story of his epic pursuit of three bull elephants. He encounters lions and rhinos along the way (as he does in almost every story) and proves his unmatched skill as a hunter. This conquest leads him into conflict with Wambe, a tyrannical local chief. Maiwa, the chief’s wife helps Allan lead an army against him. These stories are always a lot of fun, full of adventure, humour and derring-do. I heartily recommend them.

The Word is Murder - Anthony Horowitz ***

On the day an old woman walks into a funeral parlour to arrange her own funeral, she’s murdered. She has a famous son and a tragedy in her past that still haunts her. Hawthorne is the brilliant ex-detective and the author is his sidekick. I wondered how this would work out and it was for this reason I bought the book. I’ve never come across a novel where the author is one of the main characters and inserts himself into a murder investigation. It worked and I enjoyed it though I wouldn’t say I was really gripped by the storyline. I enjoyed the finale and the big reveal was classic for a good whodunnit. It did make me want to read more from this author who I know is very popular. In the end, a good solid whodunnit. Check it out if you’re a fan of the genre.

Dominion - Tom Holland ****

I love the history of Christianity and though this book is more than that, I was intrigued to learn how Christianity and Christian thought, transformed the world. I’m not the sharpest knife in the draw so some of the content passed me by, but I enjoyed learning how the rise and fall of Christianity shaped each and every age of western society for the last two thousand years. I particularly enjoyed the last few chapters from the nineteenth century onwards. It made me think about how, as we recoiled more and more from the values of compassion, mercy and strength in weakness, we became a more selfish, brutal and uncaring society. I appreciated how the author explained the positive and negative influences of Christian thought on the world and loved the whistle-stop tour through the centuries. An interesting and thought-provoking book. Recommended. (Listened to on Audible)

Airport - Arthur Hailey ****

I found out recently that one of the best comedies ever made (Airplane) was based on a series of films in the seventies all set in airports and on planes. This book is the novel on which those films are based. Many consider the sixties to be the golden age of the aviation industry when the excitement and glamour of air travel was in full flight. This book captures it all nicely. Mel Bakersfield is the experienced manager of Lincoln Airport and he’s going to need all that expertise to make it through the night. A fierce storm sweeping the region has dumped several feet of snow on the city and it shows no sign of stopping. An aeroplane is stuck in the snow and blocking a runway, a local residents’ group has chosen tonight to protest the hideous noise pollution the aeroplanes create and someone is trying to smuggle their way onto flights. All the while Mel’s marriage is falling apart, his brother is suicidal and his brother-in-law is the arrogant hotshot pilot in charge of Flight Two. The same flight by the way which has been targeted by a suicide bomber. Add into the mix a load of infidelity and you have the recipe for a terrific book. I loved it but I do wonder how appealing it will be with those for whom airports have lost their magic.

Tell No One - Harlan Coben ***

These books are so full of twists and turns that it’s difficult to keep track of them all. The author is known for these twisty and suspenseful thrillers that keep you guessing until the final page. Dr. Stephen Beck is a happily married, successful doctor when on one tragic evening his world gets turned upside down. He and his wife get attached, he is left for dead while she is kidnapped and murdered. Or is she? Years later when three bodies are dug up in remote woodland, the case gets reopened and Beck finds himself under suspicion. When he receives an anonymous and mysterious email suggesting his wife is alive and kicking, he goes in pursuit of her and the truth. Hunted by the police and a nefarious criminal, bankrolled by a famous billionaire, Beck is looking over his shoulder. This is standard fare for a Coban novel. He keeps you guessing until the very last page.

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