Friday, January 27, 2012

Author League Part 4: Horror and Action

It seems strange grouping “horror” and “action” into the same part, but this is really a way of scooping up all the other authors I read regularly. In truth, although I enjoy the action books, I rate them far below the other books in terms of standards. Maybe next month, I will bring all four parts together and do an overall table. Without further a do lets begin:
Stephen King (U) A+
Total books read: 18 (The Dark Tower series, The Stand, IT, Dolores Clairborne, Cujo, Pet Sematary, On Writing, Eyes of the Dragon, Just After Sunset, Skeleton Crew, Under the Dome, 11/22/63)
Total books written: 54 (roughly)
The StandPet SemataryCujoItDolores Claiborne
Out of all the authors I read, Stephen King is easily the most well known. He has been at the top of the horror profession for decades and rightly deserves the accolades awarded to him.
Apart from a brief fling with IT when I was young, my first experience of a Stephen King book was “The Stand.” It blew me away. For a book I read almost 15 years ago, I can still vividly remember some of the scenes in the story such as:  the prison, the tunnel and Trashcan man. In fact each character is strong and of course you have the excellent villain in Randall Flagg. The only slight negative regarding the book and a common flaw many people comment on with King’s work is that the ending is weak. After such a huge built up the pay-off didn’t work for me. Having said that for many years this was the best post apocalyptic horror novel I have read.
Despite my love for “The Stand,” it is only in recent years that I have really started reading King in a big way. I haven’t come across a bad book by him yet. Many of his books I grew up hearing so much about, maybe even seeing glimpses from the films as they have been on TV, and so I often formed an impression of what the book was about prior to reading them. however, with every one I’ve read I have been pleasantly surprised.
Of his back catalogue, “Pet Sematary” and “IT” are stand outs for me. Whilst “Cujo” has a special place in my heart as I am a lover of dark endings and “Dolores Clairborne” is remarkable bit of story telling focussing on only one character.
King gets horror. More importantly, he gets that most of the time the real horror is not the monster under the bed, but human nature. No one does characters like Mr. King.
Just After SunsetSkeleton Crew
He has been criticised in the past for being too verbose (as I check the word count of this article so far and cringe). I don’t necessarily agree with these statements but there is something to them when you look at how superb his short stories are. Just look at “the Mist” for proof if you need it. King’s short story collections are always a must read rather than a, “Oh I like the author so I might as well check them out at some point.”
The Eyes of the Dragon
Not content with horror though, Stephen King has also dabbled with fantasy in the form of “eyes of the dragon,” a very good story that has left this reader wishing he would return to the more “swords and sorcery” side of things as some point.
His big fantasy epic is the 7 book “Dark Tower series.” As a rule, I dislike it when fantasy worlds cross over into our real world. With this series, I did not even notice it. The Dark Tower series is an outstanding achievement. They focus around Roland of Gilead, the last Gunslinger on his quest for the Dark Tower. The series features my favourite opening line of any series,
"The Man in Black fled across the desert, and the Gunslinger followed"
The GunslingerThe Drawing of the ThreeThe Waste LandsWizard and GlassSong of SusannahThe Dark Tower
Some say the last 3 books are lacking, but I couldn’t disagree more. Book 5 is my personal favourite and although I think book 6 is the weakest of the series (it would have benefitted from having the first third of book 7 tacked on the end), I was very satisfied with the ending. In fact I thought it was perfect. King also makes reference to several other of his books in this series nicely implying that all his work is linked.
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
In addition to his work on fiction, King has written a “how to” type of book entitled, “on Writing.” For any budding authors out there, I would highly recommend this book which is largely appreciated as one of the best of its type. The book is semi autobiographical, but the tips in there are invaluable.
Under the Dome11/22/63
I could ramble on about King all day but I will stop there as already this feature is longer then any I have spent on other authors. I will say that the popular conception is that following his car accident at the turn of the century, Stephen King no longer possesses the tools to write stories like he used to. I have read 6 of the books following the accident (3 of them dark tower books) and I refute this strongly. His last couple of novels, “Under the Dome” and “11/22/63” are excellent and if anything, like a fine wine King is getting better with age. With the Winds through a keyhole due for release on April, Mr King is on the up.
Robert McCammon (U) A++
Total books read: 7 (The Matthew Corbett series, Swan Song, Boy's Life, Gone South, The Five)
Total books written: 18
Speaks the NightbirdThe Queen of BedlamMister Slaughter
If you felt I gushed over Stephen King you haven’t seen nothing yet. Robert McCammon is quite simply my favourite author at the moment. George R R Martin and King are not far behind but this man has not written a book below “excellent.”
I discovered him by accident really. I was watching something about women being burned at the stake for being witches and as you do decided on a whim to “Google” to see if any books covered this topic. It turns out to have been one of the best things I did. The results came up with, “Speaks the Nightbird.” The blurb on the back of the book seemed to cover everything I was looking for. A young woman accused of being a witch in a small village that had its own mysteries. The book also marked the triumphant return from self imposed retirement from the author. Intrigued I ordered the book and was promptly blown away.
“Speaks the Nightbird” marks the start of the excellent Matthew Corbett series set in the Colonial times. Young Matthew is a problem solver, bright but green, we follow his progress as he develops into quite the celebrity.
The best thing about these books is, like John Connolly has done with the Charlie Parker series, they are all slightly different in themes, whilst staying inherently true to Matthew’s character. “Speaks the Nightbird” is more of a mystery novel setting the historical context, whilst the sequel, “Queen of Bedlam” was more your psychological mystery. The third book in the series, “Mister Slaughter” was action tempered with a cat and mouse style affair. All three have been excellent and I simply cannot wait for “the Providence Rider” due out in May.
Swan Song
Aside from this series, Robert McCammon has written several standalone books. “Swan Song” is his take on the post apocalyptic world and is quite simply the best book I have ever read. I mentioned above how “the Stand” used to be my favourite post apocalyptic novel, this is the one that trumps it and then some. Please read it.
Apart from horror McCammon has written a few other novels. “Gone South” is a fun read about two bounty hunters. It is quite humorous in places and McCammon does a magnificent job of making the reader like characters that aren’t altogether very pleasant. “The Five,” his most recent work, is a contemporary novel following the life of a rock band. McCammon’s love of music shines through the pages and the novel is a very solid entry into his portfolio.
Gone SouthThe Five
However, the best non horror book is “Boy’s Life.” I mentioned in my review of “IT” that King gets the life of children like no other. I meant to say no other apart from McCammon. It seems unfair to compare this book to the film, “Stand by Me” (based on King’s short story “the Body”) but I do so only as the latter is well known to many, whilst (in the UK at least), McCammon is criminally relatively unknown. “Boy’s Life” eclipses “Stand by Me” in every way. It is a fantastic coming of age story. Up there with Harper Lee’s “To kill a mocking bird.”
Boy's Life
I find myself holding back on reading Robert McCammon quite simply because I don’t want to exhaust all of his back catalogue and have to wait for his next book. The man is that good though. Following “the Providence Writer” is another contemporary story containing the supernatural. If it is 1/10th as good as Swan Song we are all in for a treat.
Brian Keene (d):  B-
Total books read: 4 (the Ghoul, The Rising, Dark Hollow and Dead Sea)
Total books written: 18
GhoulThe Rising
A quick Google search when looking for new horror authors led me to Mr Keene. I started with his latest book at the time which was “the Ghoul” and thoroughly enjoyed it. As I mentioned earlier with Stephen King, Brian Keene realised that the horror element is much scarier when dealing with the evil nature of humans rather than the ghosts and ghouls.
His most popular book is perhaps, “The Rising,” this is the first of two zombie books in the Rising series. Personally I found it the weakest book of his that I have read. Maybe that is due to my aversion towards talking zombies but I found I never took the book that seriously. Considering it ended on a cliffhanger of sorts I have had no inclination to read the second one so far.
Dead SeaDark Hollow
“Dead sea” is your more traditional take on zombies and is a much more solid entry. It doesn’t break any new ground but it is enjoyable. It is “Dark Hollow” that I think is the strongest book I have read. The novel tells the story of a struggling author slowly uncovering the source of an ancient evil residing in his town.
It may seem compared to the praise I have heaped on the King and McCammon, that Brian Keene is poor in comparison. There is some truth in that but Keene is still a very enjoyable read. His novels are short and perfect if you are in the mood for some good old fashioned scares.
I have marked Brian as on the way down in my league as I believe recently he had some trouble securing a publisher. His books are hard to come by in the Uk and I am not in any major rush to buy them. Having said that, I think I might have been a bit harsh on him and so will try to read one of his books soon.
Steve Alten (-): B
Total books read: 4 (The MEG series)
Total books written: 15
Meg: A Novel of Deep TerrorThe Trench
Steve is the author of the MEG books. MEG is short for Carcharodon megalodon, a prehistoric 75 ft great white shark. Basically, these books are Jaws but on a bigger scale. I’ve never read Peter Benchley’s book but I loved the films. Well 1, 2 and even 4.
I read MEG expecting it to be a cheap imitation of Jaws. I was pleasantly surprised. Whilst these books do not contain the character development that Benchley’s reportedly do, they do contain good characters, in particular the protagonist Jonas Taylor.
Primal Waters
Alten handles action sequences well, but is careful to ensure that the book is not all about them. There is enough content contained within the novels to make them interesting and not to be dismissed as “fluff.” I’ve read the first three books and the origin short story and have loved every one. They are my perfect summer read. I haven’t read any other novels but I certainly plan to, especially his books on the Mayan Prophecy – it is 2012 after all.
The Mayan Prophecy
Steve has an excellent website as well. I would recommend checking it out.
Matthew Reilly (d): d
Total books read: 7
Total books written: 10
ContestIce StationTemple
How can an author I rate so lowly be included in your top author league? How have you read 7 of his books? All valid questions my fine feather friends but the truth is Matthew Reilly is my guilty pleasure.
When I go on holiday, I take the books I am plan to read, but always save space for one extra book. It is a tradition of mine that one extra book will be a new author I will select at the airport. In 2005, that author was Matthew Reilly and the book was the “Contest.” A book where a man was taken and transported into a contest against other sample aliens from around the galaxy. I read it and loved it. Don’t ask me why, I just did. I leant it to my brother-in-law who hated it with a passion. His review surprised me, as we have very similar tastes.
Unperturbed, I moved on to “Ice Station,” again, I loved it. The novel introduced “Scarecrow,” a cool man if ever there was one.  This was closely followed by the “Temple,” another triumph as far as I was concerned. In fact, if I had stopped there, I would probably grade Matthew Reilly around the B+ region. “Ice Station” and “Temple” are great reads, Indiana Jones esque. The action sequences are second to none, in fact no one can write them better than these novels in my opinion.
Area 7Scarecrow
The next book, “Area 7” saw the return of Scarecrow and was the first time that maybe the blinkers had been lifted off and I started to see what my Brother-in-law saw. The writing was far from great. The characters all one dimensional (at best) and the action sequences although exciting were a bit too frequent and very unrealistic. By the time Shane “Scarecrow” Schofield had his third outing in the unimaginatively titled, “Scarecrow” I began to question my sanity. I still enjoyed it, but by that time I was reading real quality stuff and in comparison the book was not up to standard. Looking back, I wonder why I enjoyed “Contest” so much. I read "Hell Island" as part fo the quick read promotion and the book worked well in such a short format, that is maybe more suited to Reilly.
When I read “Seven Ancient Wonders,” I was speechless and disgusted as to how bad the book was. The writing was lazy, characters survived improbable scenario after improbable scenario. Any effort to develop characters was a token effort at best. In short, considering the quality of “Ice Station” and the “Temple” I felt the books had gotten sloppy and lazy.
The Seven Ancient Wonders
I will not give up on Matthew Reilly but I’ve heard “Six Ancient Warriors” is even worse. There is another Scarecrow novel coming out soon, maybe I will go straight on to that one. However, next time I revisit this league, I fully expect James Rollins to have overtaken Mr Reilly.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Book Review: Harlequin

Harlequin - Bernard Cornwell


As much as I like the Sharpe books, the Warlord Chronicles is far more to my taste when it comes to Bernard Cornwell. I was hoping that the Holy Grail series would be closer to the Arthur books then and I would find a new favourite series of his.
After reading Harlequin I can say I am both satisfied and slightly disappointed. If ever there was a book that was a love child between two series, Harlequin falls into the category.
It combines some of the best elements of the Arthur series but is also spoilt by some of the weaker elements of the Sharpe series. Well, when I say weaker elements, I refer to the things I find annoying but know full well, others love about Cornwell’s writing.
You see, the great thing about the Warlord Chronicles is the legend of King Arthur has so little/vague evidence of the time period. This meant that Bernard was not constrained in his writing in order to ensure historical accuracy. He was free to write each scene and battle as he imagined it. He was able to introduce the hint of magic into the story whilst still ensuring credibility. He was able to flip the personalities of the characters. In short, he could write what he wanted and the result of this was a masterpiece.
With the Harlequin and indeed the Sharpe books, although they are great reads, they are also historically accurate. Most of the time, Bernard manages to expertly weave this into the story effortlessly. However, at times like in the Harlequin, in order to impart to the audience exactly what really went on in the battles etc, he sometimes lapses into a few pages of description regarding the movement of major figures in history who have not featured prominently in the story. I find this results in me being thrown out of the great story telling slightly. Only slightly mind!
The Harlequin then focuses on Thomas of Hookton. An archer who’s town is destroyed whilst he was supposed to be defending it. Thomas is a good character to root for, but also frustrating at the same time. He is very Sharpe like in that he loves battle and has a sense of honour and loyalty to his fellow soldiers. However, this commitment to the army gets in the way of him fulfilling the numerous personal vows of vengeance he makes. Sometimes you just want him to get on with his personal quest.
The supporting cast as you would expect from a Cornwell novel is strong. Will Skeet in particular is likeable as the hard nosed but fair leader of the archers, as is Father Hobb who acts as Thomas’ conscience. There are some characters that drift in and out of the narrative with no resolution but this is to be expected in the first book of a trilogy. There is also the customary villain of the story who continues to haunt Thomas.
The trilogy is about the quest for the Holy Grail. It is mentioned in this first novel and I particularly like how the characters deal with it. For instance, in a world so grounded in the harshness of war, Thomas does not debunk the Grail’s existence but chooses to bury his head in the sand over the whole mythos surrounding the artefact. The fact that the character openly recognises that he does not have the mental capacity of will to comprehend such a thing of power is a nice touch and helps to improve the Grail’s credibility.
Overall then, Harlequin is a good Cornwell book. Which means it is better than about 80% of the books out there. My rating: 8.4

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: The Catcher in the Rye

The Catcher in the Rye - J.D. Salinger

The Catcher in the Rye

For a while now I have been wanting to read a classic book. Every now and then I get the urge and pick one, usually I am disappointed. For example, Dracula although good in parts, I found to be rather boring overall and I am not a reader that craves action all of the time.

Whilst reading Stephen King's latest, "11/12/63". The Catcher in the Rye was mentioned numerous times by the protagonist. It was a book that I was obviously aware of and my interest was piquered.

unlike the other classics, the Catcher in the Rye did not disappoint. In fact, I really enjoyed it. There is no plot to speak of, the story if it can be called that, centres around a few days in the life of Holden. A guy already kicked out of three schools and has just been kicked out of the fourth.

Holden recounts the last few days of school and through this we learn his views on a world full of "phonies." The great thing about the Catcher in the Rye, is that despite it being written back in the early 50's, the language still feels fresh today.

Holden is a likeable character even taking into account his flaws. He has a strong sense of loyalty to his siblings but enjoys winding others up. He uses his height to get booze and although he claims to hate the movies, seems to spend an awful lot of time at them.

Throughout the novel, you are rooting for things to go his way. There are characters that wish the best for him but he continues to push them away, through constant lying or dogged determination to be a loner. His attitude, lands himself in all sorts of dangerous scenarios, that he manages to shake off and continue on his way to a destination he has no idea of.

The conclusion ends where Holden decides to stop telling the tale. This sums up his character perfectly and is in keeping with the rest of the book. My Rating: 8

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Book Review: Mr Slaughter

Mr Slaughter – Robert McCammon

Mister Slaughter
Mr Slaughter marks the third entry into the historical fiction series featuring Matthew Corbett and the fourth book Robert McCammon has written since his return from retirement.

Matthew Corbett is a problem solver and in the last book “Queen of Bedlam” established an agency with Hudson Greathouse, a sort of enforced mentor to young Matthew at least in the art of combat.

As the title suggests the books focuses on Mr Slaughter - A notorious killer who Matthew and Hudson are hired to escort from the asylum back to London where he is due to be hanged. As you can probably imagine, the job goes far from smoothly.

The character of Tyrannus Slaughter is everything I hoped he would be from the moment we first meet him. A man who on the outside appears to be quite the gentleman but oozes danger with every calculated breath he takes. Despite their experience and reluctance to talk to the criminal, Tyrannus Slaughter soon gets into the minds of both Matthew and Hudson, expertly playing them off each other.

Mr Slaughter, is an expert portrayal in the game of Cat and Mouse. Robert McCammon weaves so many facets into the story and takes Matthew on about a hundred different tangents whilst still keeping the plot fresh and interesting. Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the Tyrannus Slaughter, he consumed me every time he appeared on the page. Robert managed to make him both latently lethal whilst also being quite humorous in places. The “women” line is quite exquisite.

The Colonial era is once again superbly portrayed whilst still being accessible. The supporting cast is fantastic, whether the characters are in the story for seconds or throughout. If there is a criticism it is minor and that is Hudson Greathouse depicted as so cynical and cautious in the “Queen of Bedlam” makes some odd decisions in this book. However, with a great invention like Ty Slaughter manipulating your mind, this can be excused.

As with all Robert McCammon books the end is satisfying and even leaves on a bit of a cliff-hanger. All in all a fantastic entry into the series by an author that has not let me down yet. Overall rating: 9.4

Friday, January 6, 2012


A year in review 2011:
It is the 12th day of Christmas and so I thought it was time to talk about some of my reading highlights from 2011. It seems every blog does this and I can see why as I love reading others thoughts on the books I have discovered. Before I hand out any awards some brief stats for you on my reading habits in 2011.
Total books read = 54
Most read genre = Fantasy (10 books not including re-reads).
Most read authors:
Stephen King = 5 books
George R R Martin = 5 books (including re-reads)
Robert McCammon = 3 books
Bernard Cornwell = 3 books
Tess Gerritsen = 3 books.
Wow, 54 books read when I normally average around 32 a year. I have certainly enjoyed reading in 2011 but I think this says an awful lot about my lack of productivity on the writing front as well. Something that            will have to be corrected this year. As for the authors listed, it makes sense as I consider these to be my favourite alongside John Connolly and Karin Slaughter.
Anyway on to the ceremony. We start with the biggest prize. The countdown of my top 5 books from last year in order. And in 5th place....
5. The seventh Scroll by Wilbur Smith.
 The Seventh Scroll
Having really enjoyed the first Warlock book I sure put off this one for a long time. I waited 4 years to read book 2 for some unknown reason and what a fool I was for waiting so long. Loved this  book.
4. Mister Slaughter – Robert McCammon.
Mister Slaughter
Fantastic continuation of the Matthew Corbett series. Mister Slaughter himself is one of my favourite villains every created on paper.
3. Now you see me – S J Bolton
Now You See Me
I am so happy to put this in my top 5 books of the year. It is normally a list dominated by fantasy or historical fiction. Any concerns I had about S J Bolton starting a formulaic detective series were clearly unfounded.
2. 11/12/69 – Stephen King
Apparently Stephen King has lost his talent for writing. I present to you exhibit A.
And the winner is....
1.    Best Served Cold – Joe Abercrombie.
Best Served Cold
Joe is fast becoming one of my favourites. I will be reading the Heroes soon and am really looking forward to it.
Those were the top 5 books I enjoyed last year. You can click on the links to see my proper reviews of them. However, an awards ceremony would not be a ceremony with only one award and so...
Best new Series discovered:
Sword of Shadows: The Cavern of Black Ice – J.V. Jones.
A Cavern of Black Ice
This is one of only a handful of authors that has the potential to match the excellence of my favourites. Hopefully book 2 does not disappoint.
Best continuation of a series:
Mister Slaughter – Robert McCammon.
Mister Slaughter
See above for my opinion on this book.
Favourite scene from a book:
The dragon lands in front of Dany in a Dance with Dragons.
A Dance with Dragons
This was the most anticipated book of the year. Whilst it did not receive universal praise I for one loved it. George’s writing was as strong as ever and I think it was only people’s expectations that hampered their enjoyment of the book. I really hope the series does not become like the Star Wars franchise, where it is popular to slate George after his initial genius. The scene above had everything. It was one of the few times my heart beat so fast in reaction to what was unfolding. A perfect demonstration of creating tension.
Biggest surprise:
The Kinshield legacy – K C May.
The Kinshield Legacy
I had seen this book mentioned in passing on various forums. I thought the blurb sounded good and bought it on a whim. It was far better than I thought it would be.
Biggest disappointment:
The Seven Ancient Wonders
The seventh scroll – Matthew Reilly
I really dislike saying anything negative about an author. If they have managed to get published then good luck to them. Matthew Reilly has always been a guilty pleasure of mine. His writing is not the best and neither are his characters, but he can write action sequences better than anyone. This book was hard to defend though.