Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review - River of Souls

River of Souls – Robert McCammon

In the space of three months the majority of my favourite authors have all or will have released new books. John Connolly's book was excellent, Stephen King's didn't disappoint and hopefully Joe Abercrombie's will meet expectations. None of these were as eagerly anticipated as Robert McCammon's new Matthew Corbett book.

The blurb:

The year is 1703. The place: the Carolina settlement of Charles Town. Matthew Corbett, professional 'problem solver,' has accepted a lucrative, if unusual, commission: escorting a beautiful woman to a fancy dress ball.
What should be a pleasant assignment takes a darker turn when Matthew becomes involved in a murder investigation. A sixteen-year-old girl has been stabbed to death on the grounds of a local plantation. The suspected killer is a slave who has escaped, with two family members, into the dubious protection of a nearby swamp. Troubled by certain discrepancies and determined to see some sort of justice done, Matthew joins the hunt for the runaway slaves. He embarks on a treacherous journey up the Solstice River, also known as the River of Souls. He discovers that something born of the swamp has joined the hunt...and is stalking the hunters with more than murder in mind.
What follows is a shattering ordeal encompassing snakes, alligators, exiled savages, mythical beasts, and ordinary human treachery. The journey up the River of Souls will test Matthew's courage, commitment, and powers of endurance. It will also lead him to a confrontation with a figure from his recent past, which will alter Matthew's life, setting the stage for the next installment in this compulsively readable series.

I read some reviews that mentioned they were disappointed with the short length of this entry in the series (it is roughly half the size of the normal length of the other books), this never bothers me. A story should be as long as it needs to be. In McCammon's capable hands you know you are getting quality. Having said that, when the writing is this good you do greedily hunger for more.

River of souls sees a rather bruised and battered Matthew Corbett recovering from his rather harrowing encounter with the nefarious Professor Fell. There are job opportunities available for him to solve but none of them provide any interest for our young problem solver. In the end, he is forced to take a mission to Charlestown to accompany a young lady to a ball and inevitably this seemingly mundane mission turns out to be more complicated and introduces him to Magnus Muldoon in the process.

Matthew decides to stay on in Charlestown to recuperate but whilst he is there a murder occurs and Matthew is unable to resist investigating. After some initial probing Matthew is unable to accept that the man accused of murdering the girl's life is really to blame. The residents of Charlestown are offered a reward if they hunt down the slave incorrectly accused of the murder and so Matthew faces a race against time to find the slave and his family before they are murdered.

The pursuit takes Matthew and Magnus Muldoon up the River of Souls which permits Robert McCammon to flex his imagination and create an eerie atmosphere that only he can produce. Deadly encounters with wildlife, feral tribes and even a mysterious supernatural entity are all encountered, topped off with some excellent characters.

Matthew is as resourceful, yet vulnerable as ever. He takes an absolute battering in this novel and despite displaying unwavering determination, you never get the sense he is in control or that he will prevail.

Magnus Muldoon is an excellent character even if he resembles a more primitive Hudson Greathouse. After such a despicable introduction McCammon makes you root for his character as if he had been an ever present favourite. Considering the short length of the book this is certainly no mean feat and exemplifies McCammon’s skill with characters.

There are weaknesses: The story arc actually ends quite a bit before the end of the book making the plot even shorter; the last few chapters are quite obvious and seem a bit too contrived in a series that never relies on such tropes and the appearance of one character is so coincidental it is almost comical.

Having said that, the result of these coincidences is one hell of a good cliff-hanger. This all sets the next book up perfectly.

Overall, when River of Souls is good, it is some of the best writing in the series to date. The short length (I know I sound hypocritical) do tarnish the novel slightly and the coincidences at the end are a little far-fetched.

My rating: 8.8

Monday, July 7, 2014

Book Review - Bullets and Fire

Bullets and Fire – Joe R Lansdale

Every now and then I read a short story compilation. They all have one thing in common: the Joe Lansdale story is always one of the stronger stories. In England, Joe is quite hard to get hold of without paying a hefty amount of cash in comparison to other books. This is the only reason I have not snapped up his books. I saw Bullets and Fire on the Kindle for under a pound and snapped it up even though it is a short story.

The Blurb:

Dad told me once, that if people don't care about where they live, the way they act, people they associate with, they get lost in the dark, can't find their way back cause there's no light left. I had taken a pretty good step into the shadows tonight." It's payback time.

Bullets and Fire is about revenge. The opening pages introduce you to a number of unsavoury characters; none more so than the protagonist who has just violently beaten up a little girl.   

Although it becomes clear that there is a reason behind this heinous act, you are left under no illusion that the protagonist is not in a good place and is not a nice guy. The act he committed was an initiation into becoming a gang member of thugs, peddling drugs. The gang think nothing of hurting innocent members of the public and regard themselves of a law unto their own. 

At only 38 pages the story is too short for any real character development. You get the sense that the main character is in way over his head and does not overly belong in the criminal world. The gang members he meets are thinly sketched villains with no real sense of purpose or background. They are also unbelievable stupid. The main character clearly makes a mistake in his concocted story but they accept his rather harried and implausible explanation without too much scrutiny. I thought this might come into play later on, but sadly it didn’t.

After the initial opening scenes, the story skims over some material in order to get to the conclusion. I didn’t mind this. Sometimes in a short story you only need to read what is relevant. 

The ending is great. The protagonist’s actions become apparent and I felt generally sympathetic towards him. It was clear early on, what was going to happen and that the protagonist was always going to cut a tragic figure. Without ruining the ending, I expected some sort of recompense at the end but the fact it was so meagre really illustrated how desperate the main character was.  

Overall, as I mentioned in the introduction Lansdale has been a favourite short story writer of mine. Bullets and Fire strengthens my opinion.

My rating: 7.9

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Book Review - The Sound of Thunder

The sound of thunder – Wilbur Smith

The Sound of Thunder

Although I had read two books by Wilbur Smith and enjoyed them immensely, the first Sean Courtney novel, When the lion feeds completely blew me away. I loved how it was a family drama with a western feel to it. I eagerly anticipated the follow up.

The blurb:

Sean Courtney, the impulsive adventurer, returns from the wilderness a rich man, until he is robbed by the Boers. A grim homecoming finds his country in the grip of war, but conflicts within the family will prove far more bitter than any fought on the veld.

The sound of thunder begins with the same level of quality as the first novel. Sean is older now and his son is now a teenager. Within the first chapter he has lost the fortune he amassed and has to start over.

It sets the premise for the rest of the book and once again makes him the underdog and a character to root for.  However, Smith takes care to evolve his protagonist’s character. 
Whilst Sean is still the same loveable, enthusiastic man full of risk and adventure he is also a lousy father. He turns a blind eye to the bully of a man his son is developing into, choosing to ignore his responsibility as a father in the hope the situation will resolve itself.
A chance encounter provides Sean with a new love interest. This is a little unrealistic in that it is virtually love at first sight. What is more the woman is married and this leads to an inevitable plot twist that you could see a mile off. But when the story is so engrossing as this story is, this really doesn’t matter.

Set against the backdrop of the Boer war, Sean’s life cannot avoid the war and he soon finds himself embroiled in the conflict. Whilst this is intriguing in part and the description of the battles detailed, I have to admit, I found my interest waning in parts. The sound of thunder is at its strongest when it involves the drama of the Courtney family. The scenes depicting the war remove the emotional attachment I experienced with the characters, mainly because the secondary characters in these scenes weren’t so well rounded with one obvious exception.

The real plot is centred on Sean’s family and the history and turmoil that come with everyday living. All of the characters are well fleshed out. Sean’s sons in particular are great characters in both their likability and their despicableness, whilst his brother develops nicely.  The villains in the story with the exception of Sean’s sister in law are not cartoonish. All have sound reasoning for their actions and invoke a degree of pity at least for their actions.

The ending is very good. It is not exactly epic but brings a satisfying conclusion to all of the character’s story arcs whilst setting up some nice cliff hangers for the concluding volume in the series.

All in all, The sound of thunder is an excellent, if uneven read. It suffers from a middle section that focuses a little too much on the Boer war, which whilst interesting is not of the same quality of the excellent opening and concluding sections.

My rating 8.6

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Book Review - The Gospel of Loki

The Gospel of Loki by Joanne M.  Harris

Review by Jacqui Slaney

I have always liked Norse mythology, and have read various stories about the different gods over the years, and everything I have read has always portrayed Loki as the bad guy, the Trickster who was always stirring up trouble and looking to cause the downfall of Odin.

So when I came across this book while browsing the bookshelves, how could I resist.

This is the description:

The novel is a brilliant first-person narrative of the rise and fall of the Norse gods - retold from the point of view of the world's ultimate trickster, Loki. It tells the story of Loki's recruitment from the underworld of Chaos, his many exploits on behalf of his one-eyed master, Odin, through to his eventual betrayal of the gods and the fall of Asgard itself.

Loki is definitely the bad boy here, but don’t we all like the anti-hero? They are so much more fun to read then the conventional good person.

He is the narrator in this tale and as he says at the beginning, this is his time to tell his side of the story, that he has been misunderstood before, and that though you can take his story with a pinch of salt at least you will find it more entertaining than the official version.

Entertaining it certainly is, each chapter starts with words of advice from Loki, these will make you smile, and in fact, the list of the characters alone will raise a laugh from you.

I can see some of you saying, I am not reading a book about myth’s and legends that will be so boring! Do not worry, the last thing this book is, is boring, and you do not have to know anything about Norse legends to read it either.

It is full of humour and clever writing and though Loki is the bad guy as I said, you do feel for him. He is the loner looking in, wanted by the others then pushed aside, which obviously leads to a great deal of resentment.
I liked the character alot; he is sarcastic and clever and though he makes some bad choices, you still root for him.

The author knows her subject well and obviously loves it as her fondness for the nine worlds comes through very clearly; with each chapter being a short tale of Loki and each of the gods in turn.

I enjoyed the ones with him and Thor, and the one with Loki and his revenge on Freyja.

You will read some reviews by the purists who do not like any changes to these tales, but ignore them. These are not the old myths, these are retellings with a twist. This is quite clear before you even read the book so I am surprised that people still buy the book if they are just looking for a classic rewriting.

I would recommend this book to anyone, the characters are well written and detailed with Angrboda and Gullveig and of course especially Loki.

9 out of 10


Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review - Mr Mercedes

Mr Mercedes – Stephen King

In an effort to get through my huge backlog of “to be read” books I’ve made a vow not to buy books on their release dates. There are a few authors who will always be an exception. Stephen King is one of them. This year he has two books out. This is the first.

The Blurb:

A cat-and-mouse suspense thriller featuring a retired homicide detective who's haunted by the few cases he left open, and by one in particular - the pre-dawn slaughter of eight people among hundreds gathered in line for the opening of a jobs fair when the economy was guttering out. Without warning, a lone driver ploughed through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes. The plot is kicked into gear when Bill Hodges receives a letter in the mail, from a man claiming to be the perpetrator. He taunts Hodges with the notion that he will strike again.
Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing that from happening.
Brady Hartsfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. And he's preparing to kill again.
Only Hodges, with a couple of misfit friends, can apprehend the killer in this high-stakes race against time. Because Brady's next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim hundreds, even thousands.

Stephen King is best known for his horror novels, but every now and then he delves into books that do not contain any supernatural elements. Whilst this might displease some fans, this is fine for me, as arguably these books are actually stronger stories.

Mr Mercedes is essentially a cat and mouse thriller between a retired detective and the criminal responsible for a high profile crime he never managed to solve. The story is told from detective’s (Bill Hodges) point of view, although we do get an insight into the criminal’s (Brady’s) view point as well as the occasional scene told from others.

When we meet Hodges, he is at a loss of what to do with his existence. He misses his life in the police and has no one at home to spend his days with. His time is spent watching day time TV and contemplating suicide. It is only when he receives a letter from the killer he never caught that he regains a sense of purpose in his life.

As always King’s strength is his characters. Despite the dark place in his life, Hodges is instantly likeable. For someone considering ending their life, he is not full of bitterness, or languishing in self-pity. He is more the type who has just accepted that there is nothing left for him in this world.

Hodges should go to the police with the new evidnce, but something in the way the killer constructs the letter: the red herrings and the taunts included within, sparks a forgotten fire in Hodges and excitement he forgot he possessed.

What follows is a fascinating study of a man who is not only possessed with a tenacity to find the killer that got away and of one who is rediscovering himself.  It is touching to see his interaction with a rag tag group of friends and how he finds love again.

Each of these characters are great in their own right, with the standout being Jerome. Jerome starts off as an educated young lad who mows Hodge’s lawn but also helps with everyday things such as fixing his computer. The friendship that forms between the two of them is touching and organic as Jerome becomes more like a new partner for Hodges.

Brady on the other hand is an excellent villain. Whilst the acts he commits are despicable, King portrays his background so well, that whilst you never feel outright sympathy towards him, you do experience a certain comprehension for the way he is. Brady is your above average villain and not just cartoonish in any way.

The interaction between Hodges and Brady is restricted primarily to messages in a private chat room. Despite, Brady appearing the cleverer of the two it is Hodges that continues to gain the upper hand, constantly getting under Brady’s skin. It is intriguing and tense, especially in how King writes the messages, often stating the character has left one and then not showing it until several pages later. It is a nice technique that ratchets up the tension.

The investigation is also clever and logical, especially how it unfolds. King is an experienced writer obviously, but considering he does not specialise in the crime genre, it is great to see him hold his own with the best.

The plot builds to a major showdown and a race against the clock. What is nice to see, is that the reader knows Brady is not a stupid criminal who when he gets to the final act of the story will spend precious time making a grandiose speech about how just he is thus allowing the hero to save the day. It makes for a great climax where you really don’t know what to expect. Suffice to say I was not disappointed.

Overall, this was an excellent addition to King’s impressive library. The characterisation is excellent and oh did I say it was tense?

My rating: 8.7

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review - Dust (JS)

Dust by Hugh Howey (Wool Trilogy 3)

Review by Jacqui Slaney

I tried to resist reading this final instalment of this series as long as I could, having enjoyed the series, I found myself not wanting to finish it too quickly, but then I gave in.

This is the description:

In the aftermath of the uprising, the people of Silo 18 are coming to terms with a new order. Some embrace the change, others fear the unknown; none have control of their fate.
The Silo is still in danger. There are those set on its destruction.
Jules knows they must be stopped. The battle has been won .The war is just beginning.

I just admit I was doubtful before I started this story; I had enjoyed the other two books a lot, so was worried that this last of the series would be a let down.

Within a short time though, I was caught up in the book. I found myself even nearly missing my bus stop trying to reach the end of a chapter to see what would happen next.

Jules or Juliette (to give her full name) is now mayor of Silo 18, but she faces problems with the people who live there. She wants to return to Silo 17, where she left Solo and the others, and she has found a way to reach them with the machines that she has found. This however causes her to be viewed with suspicion by some, especially those who have lately found religion; they think her words heresy that there could be other places outside their homes. Her friends though still support her especially Lukas, though he worried that her actions could be problems to them all.

The action in this book moves nicely backwards and forwards between three silos, 17, 18 and of course Silo 1 where Donald is and his sister Charlotte, who are working together to try to save people, people that under the operating procedures of the PACT should be closed down.

I really enjoyed this story, I have seen reviews that say this book is a poor finish to the series and that the writer ran out of steam. Let me assure you that in my opinion this is no means the case, and if my writing ran out of steam like this one, I would be more than happy.

The characters are excellent, Jules as ever is a very strong female lead, but also in this story, you see more of her friends such as Shirly, Nelson and Courtnee. Solo or Jimmy is also developed more in this story and his relationship with the children who are growing up in silo 17, especially Elise. You find empathy for Donald as well, trying to make up for his mistakes from the past. There is plenty of action and the pace of the plot is kept at a good pace through out.

Here in this book, you finally see the whole story behind why the silos were build and the mad plan for the future that a few men had. You have seen the inkling through the others books, but it all comes together in this one in a very good finish, you also see the reasons for the stairs in all Silos, except Silo 1.

For those of you who do not like Sci-Fi books and think they are not for them, please do let that tag put you off this series. I am glad I read it and will definitely be looking out for more of this authors work.

10 out of 10

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Book Review - Zoo

Zoo – James Patterson

James Patterson’s collaborations can be a mixed bag although some are always stronger than others. Michael Ledwidge is one of the stronger authors he works with. The premise for Zoo is one of those that filled me with both trepidation and excitement. It sounds kind of cool but could be a disaster if not executed properly.

The blurb:

New York. Mexico. India. California. All around the world, brutal attacks are crippling entire cities. It isn't the work of terrorists, but of animals, and their somehow coordinated assaults are escalating at a terrifying pace.

Jackson Oz, a young biologist, watches the events with an increasing sense of dread. A coordinated lion ambush in Africa demonstrates the enormity of the violence to come. Could it be the beginning of an all-out war on man?

With the help of ecologist Chloe Tousignant, Oz races to warn world leaders before it's too late. The attacks are growing in ferocity, and soon there will be no place left for humans to hide. With wildly inventive imagination and white-knuckle suspense that rivals Michael Crichton at his very best, James Patterson's ZOO is a non-stop thrill-ride from "One of the best of the best." (TIME)

I usually find books that criticise the realism behind the science of a plot to be pedantic. At the end of the day, I am reading a work of fiction and so I expect a certain amount of liberty to be taken. If the words on the page are said with enough conviction and the writing is good then that is enough for me. I will then settle in and enjoy the characters and the plot.
Unfortunately with Zoo this did not happen. The science was reasonable enough. I am sure it is all nonsense but within the confines of the story it worked. The problem was the plot and characters were very lacking.

Jackson Oz is a promising student who dropped out of University to follow his passionate belief that animal attacks on humans were becoming more frequent. He is somewhat of a geek in his lifestyle, has a nymphomaniac of a girlfriend and owns a Chimp to boot. All this is covered in the opening pages. The problem is, once this is set up, Patterson seems to forget about it. Jackson Oz seems to become more savvy and sensible as the book progresses. There is no real sign of the geeky character that would have made for an interesting protagonist.

Not once is, Jackson Oz ever phased by the high ranking officials he comes into contact with. Despite his frustration and cynicism against his detractors this bitterness is never on display.

There are also some truly baffling reactions. When people he loves die, Jackson barely mentions his sorrow. He just moves onto the next situation with a shrug of the shoulders. For an intelligent guy that is convinced HAC (the incident that is turning all the animals) exists, Jackson does not immediately relate the strange behaviour of his chimp and the virus. Why on earth not?

There are other problems I had. The plot fast forwards five years or so and during that time the greatest minds in the world, had not progressed from thinking HAC must be virus. Really? They hadn’t considered anything else?

At the risk of sounding like one of those pedantic reviewers I mentioned earlier I will stop there.

This is not a bad book by any means. There are several redeeming features and some of the scenes with the animals are vivid and could have been tense. I think the main issue is that the book is not overly exciting when it really should be. Jackson Oz should have been on edge and fighting for his life every second, but instead he is rarely troubled and spends his times in meetings, removed from the serious danger.

The ending is detached and a bit careless. Maybe Patterson was going for a profound conclusion, but it certainly does not achieve that. Instead we get a rushed resolution that is swiftly unresolved.

Overall, I was a little disappointed in Zoo. It had its moments but mostly flattered to deceive.

My rating: 6.9