Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Book Review - Dorothy and the wizard of Oz

Dorothy and the wizard of Oz

Considering how much of a classic the Wizard of Oz is and how much the film was a big influence on my childhood, I thought it was criminal that I had never read the stories the film was based on. A year ago I decided to rectify that and discovered a series of enchanting books full of imagination. This is the 4th entry in the series.

The blurb:
During a California earthquake Dorothy falls into the underground Land of the Manaboos where she again meets the Wizard of Oz.

It is fascinating to see what device Frank L Baum uses with each book to transport Dorothy to Oz. The first book used a tornado, the next used a shipwreck etc. In this entry Dorothy falls down a hole in an earthquake.

Absurd? Of course but it also doesn't matter. This book see Baum explore his more whimsical side. The explanation for the earthquake is actually quite comical. In fact throughout, the prose sometimes reads very much like a Pratchett or a Douglas Adams novel. I wouldn't be surprised if either of those authors cited Baum as an influence on their writing.

For example, Dorothy's encounter with the Dragonlettes. These potentially dangerous animals are actually quite funny as they are torn between not helping Dorothy because they want to eat her and being scared of not helping her as that would be naughty and they'll be punished.

This book is unique as Dorothy does not immediately arrive in Oz. Instead we meet a variety of new characters such as the delightful Mangaboos to the marginally terrifying Gurgles.

Dorothy is also reunited with old friends as well as a plethora of new ones such as Zeb and the cart horse. There is also the rather unpleasant Eureka, who is Dorothy's cat (Toto's temporary replacement).

Baum keeps things light hearted but at the same time gives more weight to his world building. In this novel we get to know more about the wonderful wizard of Oz and his past. We learn what made him come to Oz in the first place.

The highlight of the novel though is the humorous trial of Eureka at the end. This brings all of the characters together and allows them to showcase their personalities. The scarecrow’s constant questioning of the Woggle-Bug in particular is very amusing.

All in all this is perhaps my favourite entry into the Oz series so far. The plot may be disjointed but you can really feel the fun Frank L Baum has writing the book and temporarily living the lives of his creations.

My rating: 8.2

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Book Review - Hold Tight

Hold Tight – Harlan Coben

For an author I thoroughly enjoy, it has been long time since I have read a Harlan Coben novel. His standalone novels, tend to be mind boggling 
awesome in terms of the amount of twists and turns Coben puts the reader through. The plot starts off in one direction and then goes off in several different tangents. In short, they are generally awesome.

The Blurb:

Tia and Mike Baye never imagined they'd become spying, overprotective parents. But their sixteen-year-old son Adam has been unusually distant and aloof lately, and after the recent suicide of his classmate, Spencer Hill, they can't help but worry. They install a spy program on Adam's computer and within days they are jolted by a strange message to their son from an unknown correspondent: "Just stay quiet and all safe." Meanwhile, browsing through an online memorial for her son, Betsy Hill is struck by one photo in particular - it appears to have been taken on the night of Spencer's death...and he wasn't alone. She thinks it's Adam Baye standing just outside the camera's range, and when Adam goes missing, it soon becomes clear that something deep and sinister has infected their community. Uncovering the secrets and lies at the heart of Spencer's death may be the only thing that can help Betsy move on - and perhaps save Adam's life.

Hold Tight is a little different from Coben’s other novels in that although the twists and turns are present, the plot focuses on a few mysteries and sticks with them. This is refreshing and you spend more time with consistent characters and they behaviours remain constant.

Although the blurb suggests the main characters in the book are Tia and Mike, this novel focuses on the lives of dozens of characters. Being part of the same community they all interact with each other at certain points but a lot of the plot threads are seemingly unrelated. The theme running through each thread is undoubtedly that of parenthood. With different characters protecting their children in different ways, or seeming to not give a damn about their responsibilities.

Rather than be frustrating, in Coben’s capable hands, the loose plot threads add to the mystery. It is akin to doing a puzzle where you look at a piece and wonder what on earth it could be and then suddenly it slots in and makes the whole scene come to life.

Tia and Mike are strong characters who are concerned about their son (Adam) to the point where they install Spyware on his computer to monitor his behaviour. It is not a question of trust, but precaution as their son has become so withdrawn and is behaving in a way very different from normal. It turns out their fears were correct, when Adam goes missing.

The installation of the software gives rise to a number of ethical dilemmas and Mia’s and Mike’s conflict over whether they are doing the right thing is well handled. Mike is a devout father obsessed with doing everything possible to find his son, whilst Mia is the same but has to juggle a demanding boss at the same time.

The other character’s encounter issues equally daunting from dealing with the loss of a child and not knowing how they failed him, to discovering the best way to cope with a daughter that has gone mental torment.

The result of these scenarios is a slower paced Coben novel, but still just as thrilling. Everyone is a suspect even though you don’t want them to be and Coben as usual does not give away any clues, providing just enough information to develop character and plot and no more.

There are some minor points. The sheer volume of characters means that sometimes you initially lose track of who is who. Although Coben quickly reminds the reader, it is a shame to feel lost for a bit. There is also one weak character that is clearly unhinged. His reasoning for committing the crimes he does are not completely convincing, which is a shame as all the other characters feel realistic.

When the revelations start to happen, they do not disappoint. All plot elements are satisfactorily resolved and culminate in exciting set pieces to boot.

Overall, Hold Tight marks a departure from a set of standalones that were in danger of becoming a little too formulaic. I think the new direction works extremely well and Coben has added another strong book to his bibliography.

My rating: 8.5

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