Review of Gone Girl (book) by Gillian Murphy (SPOLIER KLAXON)

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Before we begin let me just explicitly say THIS IS A SPOILER WARNING. If you have any interest in reading Gone Girl then read this later because, this review is going to spoiler the hell out of the story. You have been warned.

Synopsis

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On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy Dunne’s fifth wedding anniversary. One problem though Amy has disappeared and there are signs of a struggle.

Nick quickly becomes the number one suspect. He is the husband. He is bonking a 23 year old student of his and he is telling lots of petty small lies.

As it turns out though Nick is innocent. Amy is pulling the ultimate of long cons. Royally vexed at her husband for his philandering and other stuff (a lot of it very petty). She has carefully planned out how to fake death and has dropped Nick in the proverbial.

In the third act though things go truly bonkers. Nick knowing his wife’s supreme self-conceited nature begins giving interviews coded to get her to come back to him. Amy is at first just enjoys his suffering but then after being robbed she reaches out to a clingy ex-boyfriend Desi. Desi happily puts her up in his secluded beach house. Amy quickly realises she is now essentially in prison so she kills Desi frames him for rape and kidnap and returns to her husband determined to resurrect their marriage.

The story then ends with Amy using Nick’s sperm to get pregnant and thus blackmailing him into supporting her story and staying together in the ‘perfect’ marriage.

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Review

I’m going to start off with a couple of pieces of huge praise for Gone Girl. Gone Girl is 578 pages long I ploughed through it in maybe six hours of reading. I enjoyed it. I don’t tear through books like that if they aren’t good/fun.

I will temper this praise however, by saying that I knew before reading that there was a huge plot twist. I had an inclining what it was and so wanting to know the ‘answer’ to the plot was obviously a huge magnet to my attention. Had this incipient plot twist not been ever present then I would have probably took more time.

My second piece of praise is for the way the Amy character is written. The book is told through alternating monologues between Amy and Nick The first section of Amy’s diary entries, the fake ones, are written in such a way that at first I was like OMG this is soooo fake. It is soooo over the top and cliche ridden. I don’t really believe in this character except as a parody/comedy on modern dating.

This of course though is the point. The diaries are a fake. In fact they essentially a fake within a fake because, Amy is doctoring old diary entries to create a fake persona and frame Nick but these diary entries themselves were written the voice of another fake persona’s rather than Amy’s ‘true’ voice from part two onwards.

When Amy’s story catches up to Nick’s in the timeline then the switch into her authentic voice reads beautifully and fits in perfectly with the earlier diary entries.

Additionally, the self-absorption of Amy’s character is brilliantly written. At some point Nick says to his twin sister that Amy will believe his apologies and come back because, she truly and completely believes in her own perfection. This is true and comes across in the writing and it is this and only this that allows me to accept the high wire act that is built upon in the final third.

The Nick character however isn’t as well written as Amy. Dare I say that some of this is because, a female writer struggles to convincingly write a male character. Some of this is also because, Nick is a pretty pathetic character and Murphy’s characterisation of him never seems to fit.

Sometimes he is pathetic sneaking around to read old magazine stories he writes. Sometimes he is an alpha-male. Sometimes he is a beta-male. Sometime he is clever. Sometimes he comes across as an idiot.

In particular the ‘relationship’ between Nick and his dementia ridden Father is never believable. It reads likes someone wanting to comment on the sort of male-female dynamics the Guardian obsess over but it just never rings true to real life and it never adds anything to the plot.

Murphy uses it to stick a toe in the water of suggesting Nick is misogynistic but it is never ever taken far enough. Even when Nick is talking about the shape of Amy’s skull at the start of the novel I never believe this is a character ‘strong’ enough to murder another human being. For the plot of Gone Girl to really work the Nick character needs to have more menace.

Overall, I would recommend Gone Girl. In its format and tone is reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love save that it is more exciting and has a slightly more believable plot. Gone Girl is definitely worth a read and it is currently really cheap on amazon.

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Review of The Triangle : A Year On The Ground With New York’s Blood’s and Crips by Kevin Deutsch

Plot Synopsis

The Linden Triangle: Linden Avenue and Linden Place, Hempstead, Long Island. At this blighted intersection, seemingly forgotten by the middle and upper class communities that surround it, the dream of suburban comfort and safety has devolved into a nightmare of flying bullets and bloodshed. Here, a war between the Bloods and Crips has torn a once-peaceful neighborhood apart.The book tells the true story of one year in the life of a suburban village-turned-war-zone.

Review

I’ve written in the past that expectation can ruin a book/film and this is certainly the case with Kevin Deutsch’s ‘The Triangle’. I got this for Christmas after reading and really enjoying an extract online months and months before its December release date.

Essentially, what the extract promised to me was another book like David Simon’s (creator of The Wire) ‘Homocide : A Year On The Killing Streets’ i.e.  Gripping, true to life drama that completely engrosses me. These are high standards that 99,9% of books will struggle to live up to but the extract on the internet had really grabbed me and caught my attention.

What we get instead is David Simon super super super light. Kevin Deutsch explains in an afterward the lengths he went to get accurate reporting from the triangle and it is all very commendable. Essentially, he hung around the Triangle and chatted to the drug dealers.

This effort doesn’t translate to the narrative though. None of the characters are ever really fleshed out in anyway. It seems that Deutsch took everything he was told at face value and as such I never feel that I know even the names of 95% of the characters. Members of the Crips or the Bloods hit each other and different members hit back but the writing struggles to make it clear who each character is.

More problematic though is that narrative doesn’t feel realistic or believable. One of the main characters is killed with a bullet to the head at  point blank range after being spotted by the rival gang. This character has been in hiding for a few days and hasn’t been talking to anyone.

Deutsch chooses to write up his death as if he was talking to the dead man moments before his murder. He writes as if he knew his thoughts. How this is possible I do not know but when you are reading a true to life crime thriller the disconnect is jarring.

This event happens perhaps 80% of the way into the novel and the way it is told just checks me out. Already the writing has felt superficial and now it takes on all the substance of candyfloss in the wind.

The best I can say for ‘The Triangle : A Year On The Ground With New York’s Bloods and Crips’ us that it is a quick read. The worst I can say is that it is completely forgettable and without impact. This book aims to be The Wire or Homocide : A Year on the Killing Streets and fails completely.

One word Avoid.

Review of Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather (Spoiler free)

I’ve been threatening/planning to reread Terry Pratchett’s comic fantasy classic series of Discworld and at last apathy has been overcome. So grab hold of the giant flying turtle, do not call the passenger next to you a monkey and, please sir, stow that suitcase away in the overhead compartment (no I don’t care if it has legs).

So ignore the throbbing pain in your shins we’re mixing metaphors and hopping aboard the Discworld express as it winds it’s way down from the Sto plains to Ankh-Morpork.

Due to some temporal confusion our first stop is not ‘The Colour of Magic’ but is in fact the ‘Hogfather’. Lets do a plot synopsis..

Hogfather – The Plot

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Hogswatch i.e. Saturnalia. Right at this moment the Hogfather should be abseiling his way down chimneys delivering presents to excited children.

There is a slight snafu though the Hogfather is not anywhere to be found and in his place DEATH has taken it upon himself to deliver presents to the world’s children, one computer and a Librarian Orangutan that you definitely shouldn’t call a monkey.

DEATH‘s granddaughter Susan De’Ath finds this, understandably, slightly troublingly and sets about to investigate. Her sleuthing takes her to a collapsing castle of bones, the Unseen University and a place where the sky doesn’t meet the ground. Along the way she meets the Oh god of Hanggovers, the Veruca Gnome, Cheefulness Fairy and a maniac assassin who looks at the world as if through a cracked mirror…

Review

The first thing I want to say is if you haven’t read any other Discworld books don’t be put off by the plot synopsis or the fact that this is the 20th in the series. To enjoy this book you don’t have to have read any of Pratchett’s other works.

The second thing I want to say is that this book is funny. There are large sections of this book with the wizard’s and Bloody Stupid Johnson, DEATH , the Ankh-Morpork Beggars and assorted others that are laugh out loud funny. The book is worth picking just for the jokes alone. It is certainly funnier than almost any sitcom, romcom or standup routine.

Thirdly, this book has a great plot, a great heroine and a brilliant villain. The plot so this book is brilliantly clever playing around with ideas of faith, ritual, tradition and well ideas. These concepts really appeal to me.

The heroine Susan De’Ath is kickass clever using a poker to beat up monsters like the boogeyman and Mister Teatime (pronounced Teh-ah-tim-eh)  is one of the most chillingly creepy villains I have ever come across. All great stories need a memorable villain and Mister Teatime is probably Pratchett’s best.

Unsurprisingly, the author puts it better than I ever could so here is a couple of quotes about Mister Teatime. The first from Head of the Assassins Guild Lord Downey

“We took pity on him because he lost both parents at an early age. I think, on reflection, that we should have wondered a bit more about that.”

The second “Mister Teatime had a truly brilliant, but it was brilliant like a fractured mirror, all marvelous facets and rainbows but, ultimately, also something that was broken.”

And the third upon being told some heroes have arrived on the scene to stop him ” ‘Well?’ said Teatime. ‘Just… do away with them.’ …..

Chickenwire coughed. ‘Don’t you want to find out why they’re here, sir?

‘Good heavens, no. Why should I want to do that?”

Finally, Pratchett’s writing is sublime. Without using lots of language he is able to create a vivid picture of the world and its characters. Each scene is allows the reader to inhabit the Discworld and the characters by grounding even the most fantastical stuff in human experience.

All of the Discworld books are worth a read but Hogfather is is Magnum Opus. It truly is a holiday and literary classic. So get in the holiday season early this year with Terry Pratchett’s Hogfather.

Review of The Night Eternal : Part 3 of The Strain Trilogy by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan (SPOILER KLAXON)

Plot Synopsis

“It’s been two years since the vampiric virus was unleashed in The Strain and the entire world now lies on the brink of annihilation. There has been a mass extermination of humans orchestrated by the Master—an ancient vampire possessed of unparalleled powers. The future of humankind lies in the hands of a ragtag band of freedom fighters—Dr. Eph Goodweather, Dr. Nora Martinez, Vasiliy Fet, and Mr. Quinlan, the half-breed offspring of the Master who is bent on revenge.”

Review

I don’t say this lightly. I can’t remember the last time I finished a series and regretted reading it but that is how I feel about ‘The Night Eternal’. After a strong first book and a so-so second book the Strain series concludes with The Night Eternal and it’s a complete stinker.

Books, films, poems, games, stories of any type really make implicit promises to the audience that things are going to unfold in certain ways. The story sets up questions that are going to be answered or at least expectations of the type of questions asked and/or the way that are being answered.

If you start off playing Mario you expect to fight Bowser and rescue Princess Peach. If the story starts with a quest to a far off mountain to destroy a magical ring the story better be about getting to the mountain and destroying said ring. If the story starts with John McCain taking his shoes off in a skyscraper then that skyscraper better be taken over by German terrorists and the fact he is shoeless needs to figure in also. You get the point.

The Night Eternal doesn’t understand this. ‘The Strain’ (Book One) set the scene about the type of story that is being told. The book starts off by putting a ‘scientific’ spin on Vampires. Rather than being mythical creatures the main character is the chief scientist for the Centre for Disease Control (CDC).

When he starts investigating the outbreak he is looks at the situation in a rational, clinical way. He is doing autopsies of the infected bodies and we the audience get to see how the virus is completely taking over the host and rewriting its physiology at the most fundamental level.

This is an interesting and fresh take of the vampire myth. Given the popularity of Twilight and other vampire books that are essentially about teenage girls being able to bang impossibly hunky looking guys it is particularly refreshing. These vampires are EVIL, they want to destroy humanity and they have a plan to do it.

Now it is important to be realistic with vampire stories. We are dealing with well worn tropes here. So I’m not expecting things to completely different and I wouldn’t want them to be.

These vampires cannot cross flowing water unaided and they are hurt by silver. I’m fine with this and the vulnerability to silver is nicely explained by the Silver’s well known anti-bacterial properties. The story is fitting the tropes of vampires into the idea of vampirism as a virus that exists in the modern world. This is story that I’m expecting to be told.

In ‘The Night Eternal’ this ‘scientific’ story was completely jettisoned in what is a complete mess of a book. The book decides to give us the origins of ‘The Master’ by making the story about religion. In brief ‘The Master’ is one part of an Angel that came down to Earth when God was dealing with Sodom and Gomorrah. Stuff happens it turns evil.

Then to compound matters the climax of the story is straight up Deus Ex Machina in which it turns out that Eph is a prophet. He gets a vision from God and is miraculously given the answer. It’s really unsatisfying.

Furthermore, the series has set up a whole series of character arcs that it never takes the time to develop and then gets bored of and drops halfway through.

Annoyingly/pointlessly they decided to keep Nora’s Alzheimer suffering mother around only to have her killed off screen. Even worse they set up the relationship triangle with the Master, Eph and his son Zach only to leave it to late to do anything about the issue.

Then as a final kicker the entire story has a huge plot hole. The characters spend much of the book trying to acquire a detonator for a nuclear bomb as a nuke detonated at the right place can destroy ‘The Master’. This is fine but in passing they also decide to say that the UK has survived the vampire apocalypse in tact by flooding the channel tunnel.

It’s nice that they have saved my homeland but they didn’t think this through. The UK is a nuclear power. Its weapons are based on nuclear powered Trident submarines. Wikipedia tells me the UK has around 225 Nukes. I’m not going to go into all the permutations but one way or the other the UK is going to take care of this Vampire apocalypse/ be really really helpful. This avenue is completely ignored though and it is symptomatic of how lazy this book is.

In conclusion, this is one of the most disappointing conclusions to trilogy I’ve read. Given that the authors are really good storytellers on other projects. The Night Eternal’s laziness is inexcusable.

Book Review : Running with the Firm by James Bannon

runningwiththefirmPlot Synopsis

‘Of course I’m a f**king hooligan, you pr**k. I am a hooligan…there I’ve said it…I’m a hooligan. And, do you know why? Because that’s my f**king job. – James Bannon’s response when asked by a fellow undercover officer if he was getting too involved in the violence.

Running with the firm tells the true story of police officer James Bannon detailing his two years undercover with the football hooligans that made up the notorious Milwall firm.

Review

Some set ups for stories I find inherently interesting no matter what guise they appear in. Cops going undercover into a dangerous situation where one wrong move could result in their heads being kicked in or worse is one of those stories. Even better though in “Running With The Firm” the story is true.

“Running With The Firm” is a really enjoyable read.  James Bannon gives a warts and all, 3D portrait of himself and his work. Non-football/sports fans may not think this book is for them but I would argue strongly that this isn’t the case.

Football is really just the backdrop of Running With The Firm as the book is much more of a character study of someone under extreme pressure.

I don’t know if it is correct to call the main character in a non-fiction book the protagonist but what the hell. The protagonist in Running With The Firm is genuinely interesting.

Bannon admits that as he gets more and more involved in the life of a hooligan that there are things he enjoys about it. He talks frankly about the surges of adrenaline he gets in the moments before and during the violence. He talks frankly about liking some of the hooligans.

Bannon is open about how at times he pushes the envelope about what an undercover police officer should do. To gain the Firm’s trust he puts himself at the front of acts of violence and he is honest enough to point out the concerns some of his fellow undercovers have about this.

The book is about more than violence though. The most enthralling part of the book is the frayed relationship he enjoys with his girlfriend and the flirtation he has with the barmaid at a Milwall hooligan pub. To add some extra complications said barmaid is the sister of one of the leaders of the firm.

By laying out the temptations that assaulted him and explaining just how he made the decisions he did Bannon is able to give the reader some idea of what it must be like to serve as an undercover police officer.

As a point of comparison I read Donnie Brasko a few years ago and I didn’t come away with such a felling of what it must be like to be an undercover officer. Scared of what you are doing but also addicted to to the thrill of the danger

Political Ramifications

Perhaps the aspect that would make the book most interesting to non-football fans though is the political/moral issues that the book throws up.

Firstly, there is the issue of romantic entanglement with people whilst you are undercover. Bannon just about manages to avoid succumming to temptation. Recent revelations however have shown that undercover officers in far less dangerous positions that Bannon didn’t exercise such discretion. Bannon doesn’t pass judgement on this himself writing that such as choice must be up to the individual officers but does say that in his opinion ‘fraternisation’ should only occur when it presented the only viable way of gaining the target’s trust.

This is an interesting point though. Would it have been right for Bannon to get involved with a woman if he knew that doing so would get him in a position to get lots of intelligence on the Firm’s activities? I really don’t know but that of course is what makes Running With The Firm an interesting read. It is a book of grey rather than black and white. 

Secondly, Bannon is very honest in his criticisms of the police. He talks about travelling to a Milwall away game against Middlesbourgh (I could be wrong about the team) and how the home fans spent the entire afternoon hurling fistfuls of concrete at the Milwall fans. Meanwhile the cops did nothing. To make matters worse the police essentially join in with the home fans by wading into the crowd to beat and arrest Milwall fans for little to no reason. He is also very clear about how just generally incompetent the police forces as an organisation often were and likely are.

In light of the ongoing revelations about Hillsborough and other scandals this is particularly interesting.

The politics of it all brings me to my only reservation with the book. Since Running With The Firm is a personal memoir with a tight POV focus we never really get a sense of the wider politics of the football hooliganism. There is little sense of the larger picture of what was going on.

If, a bit like a Michael Lewis book, “Running With The Firm” had done this wider picture stuff as well as the personal stuff I would have no hesitation in declaring Running With The Firm to be a classic. As it is though it is just a very good book. I’d recommend it.

 

 

Review : Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Plot Synopsis (off goodreads because once again I’m lazy)

“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.

 Review – My problems with Half A King

It’s a bit odd to be reviewing Half A King because, this book isn’t aimed at me it is aimed at a young adult audience. I knew this before I read Half A King of course but didn’t give it much thought. I have really enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s books and it was off that experience that I picked up his latest story.

When it comes to reviewing the book however I find myself in a cleft stick. How much should my opinion be changed by the fact that the book is aimed towards 10-14 years olds. Even when I started writing this paragraph my thought was that I should make a hefty allowance for this. However, I have changed my mind as I write. So here it is.

It think it was JK Rowling who said that to write for children you need to have a very clear idea of what it was to be like at that age. I’m not sure that Joe Abercrombie does or at least he has underestimated children and sold himself short with Half A King.

Robin Hobb’s words in her goodreads review get to the heart of my point. Hobbs writes that Half A King had “exceptionally tight focus on the protagonist” that she liked. 

I agree with her and I have no problem with a tight POV. After all I think my Harry Potter love is probably clear from my reference to JK Rowling and Harry Potter also has a tight POV focus.

What Abercrombie does in Half A King though is to allow that tightness to restrict the world building. There are hints to the world at large. For example, Yarvi’s mother is a fiscal genius but slavery seems to play its part in her success. Whilst there is a monotheism v paganism cultural war going on that is only hinted at.

Since Yarvi’s character is so book smart and clever from his time studying to become an advisor to Kings and Queens it would have been great to see Abercrombie clash Yarvi’s “book” knowledge against reality where the hoof meets the grass. Particularly in light of the hinted upon slavery. This wouldn’t need to be done by beating the reader over the head with the point. I would have just liked to have been given a broader snapshot of the world as a whole.

Ultimately, the lack of ambition in Half A King prevents a very good readable novel from being a young adult classic. The best children/young adult books stretch their readers in a way that I don’t think Half A King ever quite manages.

Abercrombie seems to have reigned himself in when he was writing Half A King when instead, to write for young adults, he should have been letting his imagination soar.

What Half A King did well

After those critical comments I feel I must temper things somewhat by saying I did enjoy Half  A King a lot. I breezed through it in less than a couple of nights of reading and I only do this when I’m enjoying a book.

Particularly, great was the depth to the characters. Everyone has real flaws and real positives. Whether they are a hero or a villian. There were no Mary Sue’s here which is more than can be said for other books.

Despite, being the protagonist Yarvi’s can be a ruthless unsentimental b***ard and the book does shy away from this. Such touches have always been Abercrombie’s biggest strength as a storyteller and their presence keeps the grimdark feel of his earlier works going strong even with the lack of r-rated material.

Conclusion

If you’re an Abercrombie fan looking for a fix or a someone who enjoys “young adult” fiction then give Half A King a go. It’s very good. With a bit more ambition though it could have been great.

 

Review : The Way Of Shadows by Brent Weeks

***SPOILER KLAXON***

Plot Synopsis (from amazon because I’m lazy)

The perfect killer has no friends. Only targets.

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art. And he is the city’s most accomplished artist, his talents required from alleyway to courtly boudoir.

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned the hard way to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.

Review

Brent Week’s The Way of Shadows had been on my list of things to read for a while. Weeks is one of those “new” writers that you hear about lots if you are reading popular fiction/fantasy and so I began to read “The Way Of Shadows” with if not high expectations then expectations of nonetheless.

After finishing the book I wouldn’t say I was disappointed but I would say I’m nonplussed. The Way Of Shadows is highly generic boilerplate stuff. Readings some reviews on goodreads the sentiments seem to be that people either love it or hate it. I however am firmly down the middle. It is not great and it isn’t awful. 

Essentially, The Way of Shadows mixes the well trodden coming of age story (think Enders Game or Harry Potter) with the kind of grimdark nasty  gritty fantasy that Joe Abercrombie has popularised. After reading The Way of Shadows I’m not sure the two are a good mix (although I may change my mind once I’ve read Joe Abercrombie’s “Half a King”).

The book starts off really strongly. The bad guy character, Rat, is rapist and a sadist. In other words a throughally reprehensible individual. When Azoth “kills” Rat you don’t feel any sympathy for Rat. Even better whilst doing this it establishes some key facets of Azoth’s and Durzo Blinth’s personalities. Azoth loves Doll Girl and is essentially a good guy even if he is apprenticed to an assassin and Durzo Blinth is tortured by demons.

This promising start is wasted however. Weeks seems to want to place Azoth on a downward path because of the work he is doing as a “wetboy” however there is no real change in Azoth’s character. He becomes more skilled at being an assassin. He pines after Doll Girl from afar but throughout it all he remains essentially a heroic figure. Azoth doesn’t have many character flaws except caring too much despite Blint telling him love is a noose. If I’m being harsh Azoth isn’t far from being a Marty Stu.

Now Azoth’s characterization may not be especially daring but you can’t say that it is not a winning formula. The heroes journey is a well trodden path and by having the book told from Azoth’s POV the reader is allowed to learn about the world as Azoth does.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, the exposition of the world is rather clunky. Plot twists don’t surprise because, you had all the relevant information and didn’t see it coming rather they leap out from nowhere and the relevant information is filled in very quickly right afterwards. This is not satisfying.  

More than this though the grimdark stuff i.e. swearing, talk about castration doesn’t fit in nicely with the nicey nice heroes coming of age story. It goes back to what I said earlier about needing to see the characters shaped by the world they are living in.

Initially Weeks does this with Azoth. Azoth is living on the streets and is desperate. As a result Azoth strives and succeeds in becoming Blint’s apprentice. After this beginning though Azoth in particular is just too nice and one dimensional. I never got the sense that his fear of Blint or fear of the streets was driving him become an assassin. I never got the sense that Azoth was staring into the abyss. When this subject is talked about with Doll Girl all Azoth essentially does is say I’m a good guy and this is accepted.

The Way of Shadows felt very much like someone’s first novel. The book is too generic in some places and then not generic enough in other places. Furthermore, if you are going to set your novel in a crapsack world filled with suffering then I need to feel that the main character has been effected by this suffering. This never happened with Azoth and as such The Way of Shadows never really did it for me.

In the end though despite all the criticism I’ve heaped on it I would give The Way Of Shadows three out of five stars. There is good stuff in there but it is hard to find. Plus magic ninja assassin are inherently cool.   When he wrote this Weeks hadn’t yet found his voice. When/if I read another Weeks book I will be interested to see how his talents have developed.

 

 

 

Review of Silkworm by Robert Galbraith AKA J K Rowling (Obligatory SPOILER KLAXON)

silkwormSo this is the second book of the Cormoran Strike detective novels written by J K Rowling under the nom de plume Robert Galbraith.

I’m a big Harry Potter fan and I really enjoyed the first book Cuckoo’s Calling. I like to think that had I read Cuckoo’s Calling before Galbraith was unmasked I would have suspected something because, Rowling’s distinctive writing style is very evident throughout both books.

On to the book then. Silkworm picks up some months after the events of Cuckoo’s Calling. Strike’s financial pressures have lessened somewhat and Robin is now working full time as his secretary/detective.

Strike however is unfulfilled at spending his time trailing philanderers and divorcees and finds himself compelled to dive into the search for missing writer Owen Quine. To no reader’s surprise Quine turns up brutally murdered and now Strike is investigating a murder.

Overall, I have conflicted feelings about the mystery hook in Silkworm.

On the one hand I don’t think it is as good as the locked room mystery in the first book. The murder takes a long time to occur and a lot of the intrigue centers on who had access to the manuscript and when. This just isn’t as tense and gripping as the events of book one and without a single scene to keep track of the list of suspects seems rather diffuse.

It is possible that some of the reason why I think this though is because, Rowling pulled her favourite trick of hiding a crucial detail in plain sight early on and I missed it.

So what I’m saying is my opinion might have been swayed by the annoyance of falling for the same thing that Rowling has done numerous times in her other books (believe it or not but as a child reading Potter I tended to pick up on these things so I guess I’m getting dumber).

If the murder mystery is solid but unspectacular however this is more than made up for by the characters.

The character’s relationship troubles, friendships, likes and dislikes are realistic and each character in the book from a put upon waitress to the murder suspects feels like a real person.  When you compare this to the cut and paste 2D characters in the critically lauded “The Shadow of the Wind” you really get a sense of why Rowling/Galbraith’s books are so good and enjoyable.

Silkworm isn’t a classic but it is a very readable novel. Furthermore, the slow reveal of character back story offers some truly great possibilities for murder and mayhem in later books. I would recommend this book and I am looking forward to reading the rest of the series.

Review of Sunderland : A Club Transformed by Jonathan Wilson

sunderlandThis isn’t a long book and yet it took me three or four months to finish it (that should kinda tell you everything) and to be honest if I hadn’t been left on a broken down train with nothing else to read on a my kindle I doubt I would have ever bothered.

I picked up the book on the reputation of the author and out of the desire to get some sort of inside view of Roy Keane’s tenure at the Stadium of Light. Keane afterall took Sunderland from the relegation zone to Champions in less then a season. Couple that story with Keane’s notorious personality and there should be the makings of a good book.

I was hoping it would be something along the lines of Daniel Taylor’s “This is the one”. For that book Taylor was clearly covering Manchester United in real time and giving the presses view of the action. It was well written, exciting and had interesting football related insights. In short it was everything one might want in a football related book.

In “Sunderland : A Club Transformed” there is none of that. There are lots of dull match reports you could get online and little insight beyond that of the blog of a casual fan (yes I do see the potential for hypocrisy and/or irony). Instead much of the book is taken up with dull teenageresque prognostications about the role of football in a post-industrial society and “fun” facts about the city of Sunderland.

A real disappointment. Avoid unless you want to know that for much of the last 60 years Sunderland was the biggest city in Europe without a cinema. Spoiler alert at the end of the book it is revealed that in 2004 Sunderland finally got a cinema of its own!

Review of Skin Game by Jim Butcher (SPOILER KLAXON!!!)

skingameOn May 27th the entertainment event of the year (until England win the World Cup [side note I’m not delusional I know England have about as much chance of winning the World Cup as Harry Dresden does of inviting Nicodemus to his daughter’s next birthday party]) touched down onto planet Earth. I am of course referring to the latest Harry Dresden adventure thriller “Skin Game”.

In case you haven’t read it yet or are unaware of the Dresden series then things are briefly as follows. Harry Dresden is a powerful wizard/ private detective who is sucked into an increasingly dangerous, high stakes world. Skin Game is book 15 in the series. Whilst I recommend the series I would not recommend starting with Skin Game. To avoid confusion you would at least need to go back to book four or five.

The plot of “Skin Game” revolves around one very reluctant Winter Knight Harry Dresden being forced to into a heist under the leadership of the noose wearing, independent shadow having, coin collecting Nicodemus Archleone. The location of the target. The bowels of the ancient Greek underworld. The target who the Hades knows what.

It’s a great set up for a novel and Skin Game certainly deserves its place in the Pantheon of the always exciting Dresden Files. To flesh this out a bit I will briefly explain the snake-like manner in which I consumed Skin Game.

Skin Game hit my Kindle at one minute past midnight on the 27th and I had finished it by around 3pm the next day. I took my time in getting the review up however, because I felt I needed to continue my reread of the earlier Dresden Files and then read Skin Game again in order to offer an opinion that moved behind it’s great.

You see as much as I enjoyed Skin Game I feel it’s parts don’t quite hang together structurally. Butcher doesn’t quite pull off the perfect heist. For starters it is painfully obvious that Harry has set the trap up in the opening hours of the novel. As such Butcher never managed to convince me that Harry was in real danger in the way he has in the past. Although to give Butcher his due I didn’t work out what Harry’s ace in the hole was.

The problem then is that the heist idea and the emotional character stuff don’t suit each other. I thought the way that the crew broke into Baron Marcone’s vault was a bit too simple. Instead of using the equivalent of a frontal charge to break in it would have been better if they had been forced to creep in via stealthy means. This could have really ratcheted up the tension and played off the very justifiable lack of trust that the heist crew have with each other. However, this set up would have made doing the necessary character stuff near impossible narratively speaking.

The heist plot then wasn’t as tight and taut as it could have been. To prove my point here is a spoilerific list of some of the important stuff that occurred in Skin Game (in no particular order. Oh SPOILER WARNING).

A new Knight of the Cross was found, a holy sword was broken and then lightsaberised, Harry became a proper dad, Karrin and Harry admitted their love, the “parasite” turned out to be a spirit of intellect conceived by Harry and the shadow Lash (which meant Harry was pregnant), Harry took a holy sword back into his safekeeping, Harry picked up four incredibly power holy weapons/artifacts, worryingly Nicomedius got the Holy Grail, the corruption of elements of the church was all but confirmed, it was revealed that Harry is able to hold conversations with the prisoners in Demonreach and Mouse is learning stuff in school.

I think it is fair to say that Skin Game moved important pieces to where they need to be for the series conclusion. Whether it was wise to do this whilst running a complex heist plot is open to question and for me the answer is that it was not the best choice.

Plus I’m now very worried for the safety and happiness of all of Harry’s friends. I know things have been rough for the last few books but everything seems to be coming together too early for a happy ending.

These criticisms/worries aside I really enjoyed Skin Game. The emotional character payoffs were done brilliantly. The Karim duel against Nicky in particular was exceptional. There were also some great one liners like Harry saying “come with me if you want to live” and Hades revealing that Socrates punishment/fate is that people question him in the Underworld (I kind of feel he deserves it but then so did the ancient Athenians).

Overall, then Skin Game was good to very good but it didn’t scale new heights for the series in the way that I felt it had the potential to do. Still the best book of the year though.