Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Fleabag: The Scriptures

Posted: February 4, 2020 in Book reviews
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9780593158272By Phoebe Waller-Bridge

Fleabag is a young woman with a wit as dry as the desert and a distinct lack of filter. She’s angry and grief ridden and she’s happy to lash out at anyone. She has a struggling business, and a best friend who committed suicide. She has a fractious relationship with her sister, Claire…and her brother in law, Martin, and with her father, and with her Godmother, and in fact with most people she meets. She has a voracious appetite for sex and a habit of breaking the fourth wall and talking to us as if we were her conscience, oh and she’s about to meet the man of her dreams, so what if he’s a celibate priest…

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There’s a light effortless to Waller-Bridge’s writing that tells you she’s agonised over every word, written and rewritten every line of dialogue over and over again until it was just right. And there’s an economy of language that says she isn’t afraid to kill her darlings and cut every ounce of fat she can to leave a lean, and often incredibly mean, fillet behind.

Basically she makes it look easy, which likely means it was incredibly hard. Whatever you may think of her, the woman is damn talented.

When I watched the first season the show was an indie hit, by the time of the second season Fleabag had gone mainstream and the hype had gone into orbit. Did it deserve it? Well I’m biased but all I can say is, yes, yes it did.

There’s a palpable anger behind Fleabag, and also a profound, aching loneliness. Cursed by an inability  to not speak her mind she lashes out at everyone, and sometimes they deserve it. Her dithering father, her uptight sister, her supercilious godmother, her sleezy brother in law all do her wrong, yet she often does them wrong as well, and it’s testament to Waller-Bridge’s economy of words that she can tell us so much with so little, and as an aspiring script writer—ok, someone who’s considering trying his hand at it—there is much to learn about how brevity isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Not only do you get the scripts, you also get a few potted biographies of some of the people who brought Fleabag to life, written by Waller-Bridge, as well as some of the history behind the show, and a piece of music that was composed for the second season by her sister. Oh and did I mention it looks gorgeous?

A treat for fans, or anyone interested in good scriptwriting. Just watch out for the fox…

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The City

Posted: February 2, 2020 in Book reviews
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51pEc6O8-4L._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_By Dean Koontz

Jonah Kirk is a young African American boy growing up in New York in the 1960s. He thinks he’s ordinary but he’s anything but. For starters he has a prodigious talent for music, especially the piano, just as well given he has a whole heap of middle names taken from famous jazz musicians. He also seems to have been chosen for something special by a kindly woman who claims to be the embodiment of the city made flesh. It’s just as well Jonah has friends in high places, because his path’s about to cross with some very dangerous people, including his own estranged father, and danger and tragedy are about to strike the young boy’s life, and things are never going to be the same again.

I’ve been a fan of Dean Koontz for a long time, enjoying his high concept thrillers that usually contained an element of horror, science fiction, or often both. Sure, he’s the master of a great set up whose finales don’t always follow through, and there have been the odd book I haven’t got on with, but on the whole I’ve enjoyed the vast majority of his books, and he, along with James Herbert, has always been a writer to aspire to, and many of the novels I’ve written have followed a similar thriller/high concept route.

When I picked this up I expected something similar but it’s actually very different. At first I wasn’t sure I was going to like it but soon it had me hooked. It’s a relatively simple tale, recounted in the first person by the adult Jonah, describing his life as a small boy in the 1960s. There’s an element of magical realism with regard to the mysterious woman who seems to be watching over Jonah, and his own precognitive dreams, but on the whole it’s quite grounded.

It’s a long book, and I suppose some may argue that nothing much happens for much of it’s page count, yet I found even Jonah’s everyday life utterly fascinating, Koontz’s prose is on the whole very good and Jonah felt like a fully realised character. Yes he seems a little too wise beyond his years at times, but given we’re hearing the story from an adult’s recollections I can let that slide. The cast of characters are excellent, from a truly scary woman who moves into Jonah’s building, to a dangerous psychopath with delusions of being some kind of counter culture freedom fighter, to the gawky boy who lives across the street from Jonah’s grandfather and a Japanese man with a tragic past who becomes Jonah’s greatest ally.

There’s more than a hint of Stephen King here (a smidgen of magic, real world horror and a coming of age/ loss of innocence tale) as well. Yes, things get wrapped up quite neatly in the end, especially given all the foreshadowing we get, but all I can say is that, despite this, I was enraptured by Jonah’s story. Highly recommended (rubbish title though!)

The Black Book

Posted: January 1, 2020 in Book reviews
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51g1ku1IhnLBy Ian Rankin.

(read in 2019)

Inspector Rebus has a lot on his plate. His wayward brother Michael returns to Edinburgh seeking a place to stay, and while Rebus lets him bunk in his flat—which he’s currently renting to students—when he’s kicked out by his girlfriend, Doctor Patience Aitken, he has no choice but to sleep on his own sofa. There’s a convicted paedophile who’s also returned to Edinburgh, and a half-hearted new operation in place designed to put one of local gangster ‘Big Ger’ Cafferty’s money-lenders out of business. Rebus would love to get Cafferty but doubts this will succeed.

And then one of his colleagues, Brian Holmes is attacked and ends up in a coma. Brian’s girlfriend makes Rebus aware of a black notebook Brian used when making enquiries outside of work time. It’s in code but she thinks it might be the reason Brian was attacked.

Rebus finds the book, and while he can’t decipher everything, it becomes clear that Brian was looking into a mysterious fire that burned down Edinburgh’s seedy Central Hotel five years ago. A body was found in the ruins, a man who’d been shot, but he’d never been identified.

Rebus begins digging into the fire himself, but it soon becomes clear that certain persons would rather the past stayed buried, and soon Rebus, and those close to him, find themselves in danger.

 

I am trying to read the Rebus novels in order, but obviously only as I come across them, so I may have missed one or two out. Still it’s easy to pick up threads, and Rankin is good at reminding you of what’s come before without hitting you over the head and spending too long on things.

I’m still not quite sure why I like the Rebus books. There’s nothing particularly original about Rebus. A hard drinking, divorced loner with a love of books and music and a past in the SAS, it’s all the kind of character traits you could cobble together from a heap of other detectives, yet it works. Maybe because of the Edinburgh setting, maybe because of Rankin’s gritty, hardboiled and very pulpy prose. Rebus doesn’t solve crimes through deductive reasoning or some inhuman intellect, he solves them through legwork and a healthy dose of luck (though much like Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder you can argue he makes his own luck by talking to so many people, asking the same questions over and over, and through judicious application of shoe leather. Like Scudder, with Rebus it’s often a case of shaking the truth free through sheer bloody-mindedness.

The same is true here. There are a lot of characters, and a lot of threads linking them together, and while at times it does get a little confusing, it never gets quite so labyrinthine that you can’t follow what’s going on.

There’s a healthy sprinkling of coincidence, and you really do wonder quite how Rebus still has a job after one ill-judged action, but the book trots along at a decent pace and doesn’t outstay it’s welcome, and Rebus’ grumpy interactions with a bunch of interesting characters are great.

A decent hard boiled crime novel that was intriguing enough to keep me turning pages, and whilst I’m not chomping at the bit to read the next in the series, I’ll continue to keep my eye out for them and will no doubt snag another one as and when I spot one.

One Way

Posted: November 19, 2019 in Book reviews, science fiction
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9781473222571-ukBy S. J. Morden

When a corporation hired by NASA to set up a base on Mars realises how expensive the endeavour will be, they hit on a novel solution. They send a group of convicts on a one-way mission to get everything ready for the real astronauts to arrive.

Frank Kittridge was an architect until he murdered the man dealing drugs to his son, now he’s a convict who’ll likely die in prison, so when offered the chance to travel to Mars, to use his skills once more and to do something meaningful, he jumps at the chance.

The training is harsh, and his fellow astronauts are a shady bunch, but they make it to Mars and begin building the base. Which is when they start to die. At first Frank thinks the deaths are accidental, but soon it becomes clear, one of them is a murderer, and with no way of escaping Mars, Frank must work out who it is before he becomes the next victim.

It really takes talent to take a premise such as this—’The Dirty Dozen’ meets ‘And Then There Were None’ meets ‘The Martian’—and make it so utterly dull, but Morden manages it. One presumes the book was sold on the back of the idea, and to be fair it is a doozy of an idea, and to cash in on the phenomenal success of The Martian. One hopes it wasn’t sold on the back of the plot, which is plodding and predictable, or the prose, which is clunky and lifeless.

For starters it’s pretty obvious from the get-go who the murderer is. Maybe Morden is trying to pull a clever double bluff, but if he is it doesn’t work. That’s fine though, and if the rest of the book had been any good it might not have mattered, but it isn’t.

Plot wise things take an age to get going, and we’re well into the book before the cons get to Mars. Again this would be fine is the author had used the training scenes to introduce us to the characters, get us inside their heads, but he doesn’t, and that’s a major flaw with the book, very few characters stand out aside from maybe Zeus, the hulking former white supremacist covered in swastika tattoos who got religion and seems to have turned into a nice guy, but even here the author undercuts himself. We have Zeus, and then we have Zero, breaking the cardinal rule of not having characters with similar names. Most of the cast are little more than cardboard cut outs, chess pieces with no life of their own who exist only for Morden to move around the board, and one by one remove from the board.

They all sound the same, spouting cliched dialogue, or just plain dull dialogue. Morden’s prose is leaden and I’m sorry but surely an editor should have made improvements. “It’s Frank,” said Frank, being just one example of how clunky the prose is.

As a one off read it never got quite so bad that I wanted to toss it aside, but I’ve since found out there’s a sequel and I won’t be reading that one.

Great premise, lousy execution.

Century Rain

Posted: October 14, 2019 in Book reviews, Regarding writing
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by Alastair Reynolds

4c770b1828bf0238c48e0dc428755aec-w204@1x300 years in the future Earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a catastrophe known as the Nanocaust.  Verity Auger is an archaeologist whose specialty is retrieving historical items from the ruins, and she has a particular interest in Paris. After a disaster during one trip to the ruined Paris she’s offered a way to redeem herself, a once in a lifetime chance to visit a place that shouldn’t exist.

In 1959 Wendall Floyd is an American jazz musician and detective in Paris who’s been hired by the landlord of a young woman, Susan White, who died in mysterious circumstances. The police think it was an accident, the landlord believes it might be murder, and hires Floyd to get at the truth. There are few clues, but one thing Susan left behind was a bundle of documents to be passed to her sister.

Her sister’s name; Verity Auger!

There’s so much going on in this novel that at times it’s intoxicating, and much as I love Reynolds’ work, this might be my favourite of his books I’ve read so far. It takes a certain level of confidence to set a novel 300 years in the future, and simultaneously in a version of 1959. Nanotechnology, wormholes, alternate timelines, jazz, noir, space opera and one of the most original takes on time travel I’ve seen make this a treat for the senses.

The characters are great, from Floyd, the world weary gumshoe in the style of Bogart, to Auger, the restless archaeologist whose obsession with the ruined earth means more to her than her children, and various characters in both streams of the story feel alive, be it the likes of Custine and Greta in 1959, or Cassandra, the enhanced human from Auger’s world. It’s like Reynolds decided he wanted to write a space opera, but he’d also just seen Casablanca (and there are quite a few nods to Casablanca in here) and decided he wanted to write a noirish detective story as well. Rather than do one after the other he obviously decided to combine the two, with wonderful results.

As always Reynolds’ writing is superb. If the book has a flaw it’s in the length, there are huge sections—in particular a wormhole trip late on—that could have been trimmed, but he’s such a good writer I almost didn’t care. There are some elements he brings to the table too late—be warned, it’ll be 300+ pages before you find out the difference between the Threshers and the Slashers—but again this didn’t spoil my enjoyment.

Reynolds even manages to squeeze some horror in, with some truly terrifying bioweapons who look like children, until you see them close-up!

Dazzlingly original, exceptionally well written, fun, romantic and exciting I can’t recommend this highly enough, probably the most I’ve enjoyed the book for a couple of years. The only downer is that he’s said he has no plans for a sequel, which is a shame as I need more of Floyd and Auger!

The Last

Posted: September 5, 2019 in Book reviews, Post-Apocalyptic
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by Hanna Jameson

41vd1sHEQFL._SX309_BO1,204,203,200_

When World War 3 hits it takes everyone by surprise, not least the patrons of the remote L’Hotel Sixieme in Switzerland. As the bombs fall some leave, embarking on doomed attempts to try and get to a plane, to try and get home.

America historian Jon Keller decides to stay, despite the fact he has a wife and child home in America. Fearing they’re dead he decides to start a journal recounting the aftermath of the apocalypse. He is one of twenty or so survivors who remain at the hotel, a mix of staff and former guests, men, women and children from of varying nationalities.

With no news from the outside world, and with supplies finite, the group struggle to survive, but when the body of a small child is found in one of the rooftop water tanks, and it becomes apparent she was murdered just as the missiles began to fly, Jon begins an obsessive investigation to find out who killed her. Millions are dead but Jon’s desire for justice will see him risk his life to find her killer.

It has to be said, The Last has a killer hook, and the book design makes great use of it, from the stylised cover—reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel I thought—to comparisons with Agatha Christie, but whilst enjoyable this does suffer from false advertising, and it also struggles in knowing what kind of book it wants to be.

Firstly, despite allusions to the contrary, this isn’t some post-apocalyptic ‘And Then There Were None’ with characters being bumped off every few chapters, and though technically a whodunnit really it functions better as a drama or thriller, and here’s it’s other flaw, Jameson’s concept is sky high, but she doesn’t seem quite sure where to take it, and after a while the search for a killer gives way to a struggle for survival, which is fine, anyone who knows me knows I love a good tale of post-apocalyptic survival, but I think if this had been better plotted it could have been something truly fantastic.

It seems churlish to complain because I liked it a lot. Jameson’s prose is good, and her narrator Jon Keller feels real, flawed and not always the nicest guy, and not always a reliable narrator either. Certainly, Jameson kept me turning pages and I was always eager to keep reading.

There are too many characters, and some get little more than a thumbnail sketch (in fact some get no screen time at all) and whilst some have interesting backstories, the profusion of characters was a little confusing at times (there’s a Nathan and Adam and a Rob but I had trouble telling them apart at times, and aside from Keller, the hotel concierge Dylan, and two women Tomi and Tania (those names really should have been better thought out) in many ways the hotel is one of the more notable characters; part Grand Budapest, part Overlook, and Jameson even tries to inject a supernatural element, though it’s oblique. Sometimes it feels there are a few too many ideas thrown at the wall here.

The final act is a bit of a let-down and veers away from what’s gone before, but I still really enjoyed it, would recommend it and will certainly consider reading Jameson again.

Thin Air

Posted: August 13, 2019 in Book reviews, horror
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51KucvZBi0L._SX343_BO1,204,203,200_by Michelle Paver

Kangchenjunga is the third highest mountain on Earth. It’s 1935 and a British expedition plan to be the first to reach the summit. The book’s narrator is Stephen, he’s the team doctor and his older brother Kits, who he has a fractious relationship with, is another of the climbers. The group, five British men and a small army of Sherpas, are following the route taken by an Edwardian party led by a man named Lyall. Lyall’s expedition was a failure and several men died. Lyall survived and wrote a book which Stephen and Kits read as a child, which is part of their reason for undertaking the expedition.

Before the expedition starts Stephen has a disturbing encounter with a man named Tennant, the only other survivor of Lyall’s expedition, who warns Stephen and his group not to follow the same path.

They ignore his warnings and begin their slow ascent.  As the journey continues Stephen becomes more and more convinced that there is a spectre on the mountainside, an entity that means them harm.  Kangchenjunga is one of the deadliest places on earth, but a restless spirit might make it even more hazardous for Stephen and the others.

 

Paver’s central idea is a great one, there have been many haunted houses over the years, not sure I’ve seen too many haunted mountains, but given even today may people don’t return from attempts to claim the highest peaks, the idea of restless spirits hovering between base camps is a doozy.

Her research is meticulous, and goes into incredible detail about how such an expedition mounted in the 1930s may have functioned. Similarly her characters feel real for the time, especially in their, at times, barely disguised racism in their treatment of the Sherpas, and yet despite this there are no pantomime villains here, well except maybe for Kits because I think she does overdo the smug older brother trope a little.

There’s a lot of build-up before anything supernatural happens, and at times it feels a little like a travelogue, but her prose is good and, as stated, her research excellent, so the book is always interesting, and there is a subtle but mounting sense of dread as they draw closer to the mountain.

Once they’re climbing for real the horror begins. This isn’t a gorefest, and I’ve read quite a few reviews that state it isn’t very scary, and in truth it isn’t that chilling, and I can see what some people have said about the ending being something of an anti-climax, but when it works it’s very unsettling, especially when Paver puts you on that mountain, because it’s easy to imagine you’re on the mountainside, all alone in a blizzard, with only thin canvas between you and the malevolent spirit outside. The origin of that spirit, when it’s explained, is pretty horrific as well.

Perhaps it never quite lives up to its high concept (pardon the pun) and maybe it almost works better as a tale of men against the environment than a ghost story, but I enjoyed it and was never bored. She wrote another book beforehand that sounds similar, with a ghostly presence haunting an arctic research station, and on the basis of Thin Air I’m inclined to search it out.