Archive for the ‘Book reviews’ Category

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Posted: September 20, 2021 in Book reviews

By Agatha Christie

Towards the end of the First World War, the household of Styles Court is rocked by the death of its elderly owner, Emily Inglethorp. It is quickly ascertained that she has been poisoned with strychnine and suspicion immediately falls upon her younger husband, Alfred.

Staying at the house is Arthur Hastings, a solider recuperating away from the Western Front. Hastings had recently discovered that his friend, Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, is living in the nearby village, having arrived in England as a refugee. Hastings asks Poirot for his help in solving the crime, though he feels the detective may be past his prime.

Poirot begins his investigation, but there are numerous suspects, and it will take all his powers of deduction to solve the crime.

And at the ripe old age of 50 I decided to read my very first Agatha Christie novel. I’m not sure why I waited so long. In part I had a fear that I would find her prose stuffy, and I thought perhaps it would be all terribly polite and staid. And in truth I’ve always been more interested in the hardboiled detective who solves the crime by shoe leather and determination rather than deductive reasoning. Also given I have several friends who are huge Christie fanatics I was wary of not enjoying her work!

 The Mysterious Affair at Styles is the perfect place to start, being Christie’s very first novel, and thusly the first appearance of Poirot, although it seems apparent that Christie’s style will evolve and improve, and if this is the case then I look forward to reading more of her novels, because I enjoyed this one and if they only get better then I’ll definitely keep reading!

Christie’s prose, even in her first book, is top notch, incredibly descriptive yet not so bogged down in detail that it’s remotely a chore to read. There are myriad characters, yet I rarely got any of them confused, everyone is distinct with their own foibles and characteristics. Hastings’ description of Mary, for example, is joyfully poetic. Poirot leaps off the page from the off, this curious little Belgian. His age isn’t clear but given Hastings had worked with him in the early 1900s he’s obviously no spring chicken (given how many Poirot novels she’ll go onto write I understand Christie will keep his age nebulous.)

Any fears I had about prudishness were soon tossed out of the window as well, there’s extramarital affairs and some quite near the knuckle (for the time) commentary. Plus there’s something awfully ‘today’ about Poirot being a refugee.

Hastings is a trifle dull, and the fact that we only see things from his perspective is a tad annoying. In particular the way Poirot keeps things from him rankles a little. It’ll be interesting to see how Christie manages the plot when writing in the third person.

In terms of the murder itself, halfway through I thought I had it all figured out. I was wholly wrong, which is a good sign, although Christie does keep some things hidden most of the clues are right in front of you. It’s a little convoluted, and some clues are very tenuous, but again I understand Christie dials this down a little going forward.

Suffice to say it won’t be another 50 years before I read Agatha Christie again!

Double Indemnity

Posted: September 5, 2021 in Book reviews

James M. Cain.

Walter Huff is an insurance agent. Though basically a decent man he begins an affair with Phyllis Nirdlinger and, seduced by the idea of committing the perfect murder, conspires with her to kill her husband for the insurance money, which will be doubled due to a double indemnity clause specific to death involving a railroad accident.

The murder goes as planned but things soon start to fall apart. Walter’s colleagues at the insurance company than smarter than he thought, and Phyllis is a lot more dangerous than she appears…

Shameful to admit but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the film, or if I have it was a long time ago, but given I’ve been reading a lot of Chandler recently when I spotted this in the second-hand book shop how could I say no.

The first thing to note is that Cain is no Chandler, in fact in many ways he’s the antithesis of Chandler. Chandler is all about mood and character, dialogue and (wonderfully) purple prose. Plot is often the last thing at play in chandler’s work. By contract Cain’s prose and dialogue are a lot more workmanlike, but his plotting is superb. It’s not that he’s inferior to Chandler, they’re just completely different kinds of writers, even though they wrote in the same genre, and it makes for a really interesting contrast.

And it’s the plot that sells Double Indemnity.  From Huff’s initial dalliance with Phyllis, to planning the perfect crime, to trying to get away with the perfect crime, but this is no A to B to C story, Cain throws some bumps in the road.

It’s s short book (more a long novella than an actual novel) and a quick read, in part down to Cain’s style which will keep you turning the pages. The use of first person is good for getting inside of Huff’s mind—in many ways his agreeing to kill the husband seems less about Phyllis’ wiles than Huff’s own intellectual desire to game the system he’s spent years being a part of—but it does render Phyllis, initially at least, as little more than a cipher. It’s only later that her true femme fatale nature becomes apparent.

Anyway, this is a cracking little read, and you can totally see why Hollywood lapped it up. I’m interested in reading more Cain now, The Postman Always Rings Twice next perhaps?

By Max Brooks

A (very) short anthology by Max Books, the man who gave us World War Z. Usually I wouldn’t go through each and every story in an anthology, but given this one is so brief, just four tales, it seems churlish not to, so here you go…

Closure Limited: A Story of World War Z

The titular story is an interesting tale of an organisation that provides a very unusual form of closure for those who’ve lost loved ones to the zombie apocalypse. Just try not to think about it too much.

Steve and Fred

The weakest story of the four, really less a story than two unconnected vignettes stitched together. Steve is a bad ass on a motorcycle, trying to get he and his colleague to a rescue chopper. Fred is a man trapped in the bathroom by a horde of zombies. There’s little to connect them, and both tales just peter out without going anywhere. A shame, the central conceit of Fred’s story is actually very interesting.

The Extinction Parade

The best story in the anthology. A tale of what another breed of supernatural monsters gets up to while the zombies are munching their way through humanity. This was great from start to finish.

Great Wall: A Story from the Zombie War

A drab first person account of the zombie apocalypse, much like the ones that made up World War Z, and if it’d been included within that larger exploration of WWZ it would have been just fine. Here it’s ok, not great though.

I really enjoyed World War Z, but this was disappointing. I bought it second hand and I doubt I’d have paid full price for it, and even if it’d contained four great stories rather than just the one it wouldn’t have been worth full price. I understand the desire to make money off the back of a successful book, but this is a lousy example of ripping people off with some deleted scenes from WWZ or hastily written stories. Brook’s prose can be decidedly average, it’s his ability to get into characters heads and show the War from multiple perspectives that made WWZ so good and it’s lacking here for the most part.

It was diverting enough, and if you can find it cheap it’s worth it for The Extinction Parade, but definitely not worth full price!

The Scarlet Gospels

Posted: August 21, 2021 in Book reviews, horror

By Clive Barker

The magicians of the world are living in fear. They’re being picked off one by one by the Hell Priest, a demonic Cenonbite known to some as Pinhead, although he abhors that sobriquet. The Hell Priest is killing them off, taking their magic, learning all that he can learn about the dark arts as part of a plan to make himself the new ruler of Hell.

Harry D’Amour, a former cop turned occult detective, travels to New Orleans after being hired by one of the recently deceased magicians via his friend Norma. Norma is a medium. She’s blind but can see the dead, and she tries to bring them comfort in their afterlives. The magician wants Harry to erase all signs of his occult double life before his family can discover them, but it’s a trap, set by the Hell Priest himself who has need of Harry.

D’Amour has no intention of becoming the Cenobite’s servant however, and makes his escape.

However, when Pinhead kidnaps Norma and takes her to Hell, Harry has no option but to follow. He and a small group of friends must face myriad trials, and the darkest evils of the underworld if they’re to save Norma, but can Pinhead be stopped before he usurps Lucifer himself?

This is the first Barker I’ve read in a while, and I have to say I was drawn by the cover, because when I spotted it, I’d recently rewatched the first three Hellraiser films (Hellraiser > Hellraiser 3 > Hellraiser 2 if you’re interested) and so the presence of Pinhead on the cover intrigued me. I was a bit worried that I hadn’t read a whole raft of Harry D’Amour and/or Pinhead stuff but it turns out there isn’t a huge amount out there, and in any event, Barker neatly explains who the various characters are so well it hardly matters.

It’s an odd novel, and probably one I enjoyed the first half of better than the second, but Barker writes well, and I raced through it (always the sign of a good book). Oddly I preferred it before the characters venture to Hell itself, it’s always difficult trying to put down on paper a realm we have no frame of reference for, and at times Hell feels a trifle pedestrian, people seem to have jobs, there are suburbs…it felt more like a magical realm in a fantasy novel, with demons instead of orcs, but then at other points it’s suitably weird. It’s worth noting as well that at times Pinhead, sorry I mean the Hell Priest (Barker hates the Pinhead tag), is a more interesting character than Harry, or in fact any of Harry’s friends, though that’s always the problem with scene stealing villains I guess, and with Pinhead there’s the added bonus of hearing Doug Bradley’s dulcet tones in my head whenever he spoke, which likely helped bring the character to life.

Fast paced, gory, and featuring Pinhead on top demonic form, this was an enjoyably diverting read, now if you’ll excuse me, I have a puzzle box to solve.

Terminal World

Posted: August 9, 2021 in Book reviews, science fiction

By Alastair Reynolds

It is the distant future and human civilisation is largely confined to Spearpoint, a huge artificial spire around which various cities weave. For some reason different parts of the city exist in slightly different realms, meaning technology that works in one won’t work in another. At the top of the spire live the post human Angels in the celestial levels, but below them there’s Circuit City, then Neon Heights, Steamville and Horsetown.

When an Angel falls to its death, landing in Neon Heights, a pathologist Quillon, a man with a secret, will be forced to run for his life, and embark on a quest that will see him descend through the various parts of Spearpoint assisted by an extraction specialist, Meroka, and eventually she will lead him away from Spearpoint, into the wilderness that surrounds it, a lawless land filled with crazed Skullboys and biomechanical Carnivorgs.

But there might be some order out there after all, a force that broke away from Spearpoint centuries ago, and with their help, perhaps Quillon can put an end to the zones once and for all.

I’m a big fan of Reynolds, but for some reason this novel didn’t grab me quite as surely as his others have. Which isn’t to say I didn’t enjoy it, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as his others.

Part of the problem is perhaps that I’ve just not that into steampunk, and there’s also the shifting tone. The story starts out quite noirish, before morphing into an action adventure and then into a western before shifting again to steampunk.

Perhaps there’s just a little too much going on, and even by the end a lot of things don’t make much sense. I’ve just read that Reynolds himself says the story isn’t set where I thought it was, and various clues as to the real location went right over my head.

Reynolds’ imagination is, as always, on top form, and even if the idea of different zones where different technologies work sounds bonkers, he makes it work. It’s a long book and there are stretches where you wish he’d get on with it.  It doesn’t help that Quillon seems quite a dry protagonist, even though he’s one of the most human people in the story.

In many respects there something for everyone here; incredible worldbuilding and high concept sci-fi ideas, as well as vicious foes and bloody shootouts, not to mention a fleet of airships and a lot of air-to-air combat. That it doesn’t always slot together neatly is perhaps the reason I didn’t fall quite in love with it as I have others (Though in fairness you could cite Century Rain as another high concept melding of different genres, though I loved that one to bits).

Still highly recommended.

Oh yes, and Reynolds published some excised vignettes from the book if you’re interested. I would recommend reading the book first however.

By Catriona Ward

Ted lives in an ordinary house at the end of an ordinary street. He shares his house with his daughter Lauran and his cat Olivia. Ted is something of a recluse, and all the windows of his house are boarded up. Ten years ago Ted was briefly a suspect in the disappearance of a young girl, and now that girl’s sister, Dee, has moved into the house next door.

Ted doesn’t realise who Dee really is, but Dee knows who Ted is, and she knows what he’s done…

Sometimes hype is just that, and like most people I guess I’ve been burned many times, yet despite this when you hear good things about a particular book or film it’s hard to ignore, and I heard a lot of good things about The Last House on Needless Street, an awful lot of good things, and in the end I decided ‘what the hell?’ and bought it.

Let’s be clear from the off here.

Believe the hype!

Ostensibly this appears a straightforward story, but the blurb is spot on, you think you know this story, you think you know what’s going on, but you really don’t, and while I did eventually twig was going on, the book took me down several blind alleys before I realised, and even after I thought understood the story still had some surprises for me.

This is a book full of unreliable narrators, including Ted, Lauran and Olivia, yes even the cat gets her own chapters!

Ward’s prose is excellent, and I’m especially impressed with how each character had their own unique voice, too often I’ve read novels written from multiple first person POVs where everyone sounds kinda the same, but that isn’t true here. In addition even characters you may perceive as monstrous come across with enough empathy to make you care about them, even if its only to pity them.

An excellent page turner, one that’s emotionally difficult to read in places, and one that’ll keep you guessing, even if you get what’s going on. It’s clear Ward put a lot of effort into this book and it shows on every page. Is it a thriller, a horror story, or something else entirely? You’ll have to read it to find out.

Highly recommended.


Posted: June 7, 2021 in Book reviews

By Penny Jones

Lucy thinks there’s something wrong with her husband, Mark. She keeps hearing rumours, whispers behind her back. Why is he always working late? And what of the mysterious neighbour who looks eerily like a young Lucy? Fearful of forces beyond her understanding, Lucy will go to any lengths to protect both her young daughter and her unborn child.

This novella is a quick read, but it is a powerful story, and if I was slightly disappointed this was down to some reviews indicating it was more ambiguous than it actually is, because unless I missed something this is a relatively straightforward story, unsettling yes, but I was never in any doubt what was going on.

Lucy is an empathetic protagonist in spite, or perhaps because of everything, and the portrayal of the kind of depression many mothers must deal with is moving. I genuinely cared for and worried about Lucy, but I was also incredibly worried for her daughter and her unborn baby.

The presence of a few typos was a little disappointing, but overall a well written story about mental health that left me desperate to know what happened next!

Norse Mythology

Posted: May 17, 2021 in Book reviews

By Neil Gaiman

It should be noted that much of what I know of Norse mythology comes courtesy of Gaiman, even before I read this. There’s obviously American Gods, but even back in his Sandman days he’d slip in Odin, Loki and co. Here he commits to a deep dive into Norse mythology that goes way beyond the usual suspects like Thor, though as he says in his foreword, sadly many tales have been lost over the years.

What’s amazing is the way he takes what appear to be disparate stories on the face of it, and weaves them into a narrative arc that takes us from the creation of the nine worlds though to the final days of Ragnarok- in between are takes of giants and dwarves, gods and mortals, betrayal, humour and love. You might know some of what’s in here, but it’s doubtful you’ll know it all-I certainly didn’t!

Gaiman has always been a master wordsmith and this book is no exception. His prose is excellent, yet sparse, making this a rip-roaring read, a real page turner that never outstays it’s welcome and leaves you wanting more. I really enjoyed it.

by Darryl Jones

Why do we frighten ourselves for fun? Why is horror such a huge genre? Books, films, TV shows. Darryl Jones, English Literature professor from Trinity College Dublin, strives to explain.

I’ve always enjoyed horror, right from being a kid and watching old Hammer films. I remember being terrified of the original Blob, and the thought of sleeping with the curtains open still gives me the shivers thanks to the miniseries of Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, shown on the BBC in the eighties, so Jones’ book appealed. It helped that it had such a groovy cover as well.

It’s a slim text, less than 200 pages, but no less interesting for that. Jones splits his treatise into various sections; Monsters, the Occult and Supernatural, Horror and the Body, Horror and the Mind, Science and Horror, and dips into books and films related to each section. From vampires to zombies to the devil, serial killers to mad scientists. And he doesn’t only talk about (relatively) modern horror, pointing out that horror predates Stephen King, MR James, and even Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Shakespeare deals with horror, and Jones goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks.

Horror has always been with us and always fascinated us, but it isn’t some one size fits all, generic genre, and Jones makes an important distinction between Terror and Horror; Terror is about fear, Horror is about shock (and below both is Revulsion, the gross out.)

Jones has interesting things to say, and even when going over old ground he seemed to find something new to say. I won’t say I always agreed with him, but Jones’ scholarly approach is always interesting, even when I didn’t, and I learned a lot, because for a small book its chock full of little morsels of information; For example the Reverend Sabine Baring-Gould who wrote an influential treatise on werewolves in 1865, was also the man who wrote the words to Onward Christian Soldiers, and Jones makes an interesting link between the rise of the supernatural and Darwin’s Origin of the Species, as Darwin strove to explain the world, those of a religious bent reacted by emphasising the spiritual.

An interesting read for anyone interested in horror, or why people gravitate towards horror, that emphasises the cathartic nature of horror, and makes the point that many of those involved in the enjoyment and creation of horror are well adjusted level-headed people. Horror is good for you!

Well I could have told you that 😉

The Usual Suspects

Posted: April 19, 2021 in Book reviews, Film reviews

By Christopher McQuarrie

In the aftermath of a brutal gun battle on board a ship in San Pedro Bay, twenty-seven people are dead, and there are only two survivors. One is a badly burned Hungarian mobster, the other is Roger ‘Verbal’ Kint, a con artist with cerebral palsy. Verbal has somehow managed to wangle immunity for almost all of the crimes he’s been involved in, but still US customs agent Dave Kujan flies in from New York to interview Verbal. His interest is in a former cop turned hardened criminal Dean Keaton, a man who may or may not have died during the gun battle in San Pedro.

Verbal explains the series of events that led to he, and Keaton, winding up on the dock. It began weeks earlier when Verbal, Keaton and three other criminals (Michael McManus, Fred Fenster and Todd Hockney) are arrested in New York in connection with the hijacking of a truck full of weapons. Used as a line-up they are quickly released, and just as quickly decide to team up to rob some corrupt cops. After one successful job they embark upon a second in LA, but things don’t go to plan and they find they’ve been brought together at the behest of Keyser Söze, a mythical Turkish gangster, quite literally the bogeyman.  Söze claims they’ve all stolen from him in the past, and now to clear their debt he wants them to attack a ship in San Pedro Bay.

Kujan is convinced Keaton is actually Söze and that he survived the massacre in San Pedro, but is he right?

Okay clear spoiler warning here. This review relates t the script of a 25 year old film with one heck of a twist in the tail and if you somehow have managed to avoid that spoiler for goodness sake just go and watch the film! Otherwise carry on reading.

McQuarrie won the best original screenplay Oscar for this, and it’s easy to see why because it’s exceptionally well put together. It’s a lean script, without an ounce of fat and with not a single extraneous scene that doesn’t contribute something towards the plot. Yes you could argue that the characters are thinly drawn yet none quite feel like mere cyphers, and this is a script that comes down to it’s plotting, an elegant case of misdirection, a magic trick using words instead of smoke and mirrors. It’s easy to see why this won an Oscar and it’s a great example of writing that I think every script writer, or aspiring script writer could learn from reading.

The Film

Reading the script inspired me to watch the film again, for perhaps the first time this century! Given I’d watched it so recently after reading the script it seemed churlish not to say a few words about the film as well.

Now obviously this is a film that comes with a lot of baggage these days, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Kevin Spacy. Heck you can even throw in the late great Pete Postlethwaite in brownface with a dodgy Indian accent for good measure. Oh, and the sole female character exists only in relation to Keaton.

But still, this is a very good film—how could it not be coming off of that script—and yes it’s directed very well, and damn it if Spacy isn’t annoyingly good. With hindsight it seems much more obvious that Kint is Keyser Söze, heck in that early scene on the boat you can make out it’s Spacy and hear his voice, of course much of that might just be knowing what to look for! Similarly the big reveal feels a little less special, and damn Kint must have really good eyesight given how far away from the noticeboard he is.

But the measure of a good film, especially one dependant on a twist, is how enjoyable it is when you know what’s coming, and this was still a hugely enjoyable film, and the decent cast make the best of wafer think roles (kudos to del Toro who damn near steals the show). A sharp, violent thrill ride that still holds up a quarter of a century later.