Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book Review - Written in Bone

Written in Bone – Simon Beckett.
About four years ago, I decided to try several new authors to broaden my library. These included: Simon Beckett, Cody McFadyen, Stuart Macbride, Michael Robotham and Nick Stone. All these authors had one thing in common. I enjoyed their first books so much I went out and bought the next in the series. For some reason I have never revisited any of them. Until now:
The blurb:
'I took the skull from its evidence bag and gently set it on the stainless steel table. 'Tell me who you are...' Forensic anthropologist Dr David Hunter should be at home in London with the woman he loves. Instead, as a favour to a beleaguered colleague, he's on the remote Hebridean island of Runa to inspect a grisly discovery. Hunter has witnessed death in many guises, but even he is shocked by what he finds: a body almost totally incinerated but for the feet and a single hand. Could it be a textbook case of spontaneous human combustion? The local police are certain it's an accidental death but Hunter is not convinced. Examining the scorched remains, he finds the evidence he feared. It's clear to him that this was no accident, this was murder. But as the small, isolated community considers the enormity of Hunter's findings, a catastrophic storm hits the island. The power goes down, communication with the mainland ceases, and then the killing begins in earnest...Exploding in a series of violent acts and shocking twists, this is the compelling new crime thriller from a brilliant British storyteller.
I picked Simon Beckett to start with as the premise sounded great. I can still recall most of the “Chemistry of Death” which four years later is very rare. Dr. Ash was a good character, moralistic and driven.
In “Written in Bone,” he is still all of those things but this time he is more driven by doing his job than worrying about getting home to his girlfriend. He does not have to accept the last minute request to travel to the remote island of Rune but his interest in the mysterious death outweighs the need to see his partner.
What he finds on Rune is a closed off community. Some residents are friendly, some are mysterious but all are possible suspects. He is assisted by two police officers, Frasier (a miserable and insecure drunk) and Duncan (the inexperienced but eager rookie).
Dr Ash is a good solid protagonist. He is reasonable, polite but also knows what he wants. It is the perfect character to move around the island and allow the other characters to demonstrate all their nuances and idiosyncrasies.
I love a good mystery. I particularly love a good mystery set in a closed environment where the killer has to be someone amongst the people we meet. The great thing about “Written in Bone,” is that most of the characters are normal. They might not be worldly, but they behave in a respectable manner. It makes you suspicious of everyone, filtering through their personalities, considering them and dismissing them one by one. You hope it is not the obvious one and pray it is not a random character.
Strachan the millionaire man obsessed with injecting cash into the island is a great character as is Maggie the intrepid, cunning reporter. Then there is Brodie, the retired detective who becomes part of the investigation by default. He is perhaps the best character in the book, driving events forward and having the most sensible suggestions.
Simon Beckett does a great job of introducing the tension slowly. The routine investigation is intriguing enough but slowly the incidents become more frequent until you don’t know who to trust. Despite the wide open spaces on the island, there is a great sense of claustrophobia as the weather batters the island breaking all communications with the outside world.
The conclusion is great. There are more twists and turns then a gymnastics routine. When the eventual killer is revealed, I can’t say I didn’t suspect them but that was more to do with the fact that I suspected everyone at some point. What I will say is that you will not be disappointed with the ending as everything cleverly falls into place.
Written in Bone reminded me exactly why I loved Simon Kernick’s first book.
My rating: 9.0

Friday, April 26, 2013

Graphic Novel review - Locke and Key Vol 2: Head Games

Joe Hill - Locke and Key Vol 2: Head Games
I enjoyed the first graphic novel of Lock and Key so much I immediately ordered the second. Part of me was pleading not to fall into the trap of buying comics again – they are just so darn expensive.  But I simply could not resist.
The Blurb:
New York Times bestselling writer Joe Hill and artist Gabriel Rodriguez, the creators behind the acclaimed Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, return with the next chapter in the ongoing tale, Head Games. Following a shocking death that dredges up memories of their father's murder, Kinsey and Tyler Locke are thrown into choppy emotional waters, and turn to their new friend, Zack Wells, for support, little suspecting Zack's dark secret. Meanwhile, six-year-old Bode Locke tries to puzzle out the secret of the head key, and Uncle Duncan is jarred into the past by a disturbingly familiar face. Open your mind - the head games are just getting started!
This collection sees the pace of the story slow down. Characters are allowed space to develop and the strange events get weirder. Once again the story focuses on the children as they continue to unravel the mysteries of Lovecraft and the mysterious keys.
Bode discovers a new key that when inserted into the back of your neck opens up the top of your head and allows you to see everything that is going on there: all your memories, your fears and what makes you happy. It is a fascinating concept as presumably if you can see something unpleasant, then you can remove it. The question is, will it erase it forever and will it have any long term knock on effects? What about if you insert stuff into the head like a dictionary, will the recipient suddenly know every word?
Joe Hill explores these questions through the children, each reacting in their own way to the outlandish discovery. The comic would not work without solid characters, and it is the children’s reaction to events that make the story so good. Bode’s fearless innocence is tempered by his older brother’s need to protect his siblings. As such Hill does a good job at developing the children’s characters in the limited space he has.
The real winner in this collection is Zach Wells – the echo that escaped from the well in the first volume. Zach is delightfully Machiavellian as he inserts himself as a friend to the children’s inner circle. At the same time we get to witness how psychotic he is as he remorselessly murders anyone that threatens to expose him. The result is a slow, tense story as you are never sure how Zach is going to react at any given time.
There are some weaknesses. The Uncle Duncan story is intriguing as he recognises Zach but from many years earlier, the problem is he does not do too much about it until it is too late. Rather than garner tension it is a source of frustration.
All in all though, “Head Games” builds on a very good start to a comic book series. I am not sure where the story is going but I am in for the ride.
My rating: 7.9

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Book Review - Poppet

Poppet – Mo Hayder
Mo Hayder has been one of my favourite authors for a long time. She seems to go through peaks and troughs with her productivity, but for the last few years has got back to releasing books on a regular schedule.
She is a rare author in that her standalone books are just as strong as her series. The reviews for, “Poppet,” have been mostly favourable. Some were unhappy with the ending whilst others loved the new direction. To say I was intrigued was an understatement.
The Blurb:
Everything goes according to procedure when a patient, Isaac, is released into the community from a high security mental health ward. But when the staff realize that he was connected to a series of unexplained episodes of self-harm amongst the ward's patients, and furthermore that he was released in error, they call on Detective Jack Caffery to investigate, and to track Isaac down before he can kill again. Will the terrifying little effigies Isaac made explain the incidents around the ward, or provide the clue Caffery needs to predict what he's got planned?
D.I. Caffrey is a great character. He is different from every other protagonist I have read. He is not an alcoholic as so many detectives are, nor has he lost a wife or child. Instead, when he was young his brother went missing and was never found. This sense of loss and guilt haunts his days, especially as Jack is convinced he knew the man who took his brother.
In “Poppet” Caffrey shares the limelight with AJ. AJ works in a mental institution that is currently suffering from mass hysteria as patients are convinced they are seeing the Maude, a dwarf like character that sits on their chest and makes them do unspeakable things.
AJ. is instantly likeable. Like Caffrey he has a horrible past but, he is just an insecure man trying to make the best of his life by helping others. He refuses to look into the horrific deeds the patients in the institute may have done to warrant their time there, as he believes that will tarnish his view of them and will not allow him to treat them objectively.
As the patients become more unsettled, AJ feels compelled to do something about it and act where others fail to. In this way we are allowed to see the initial investigation into what exactly is going on before Caffrey inevitably gets involved.
I got the distinct sense that Mo Hayder was in two minds as to whether or not she wished this novel to be a standalone or part of the Caffrey series. Caffrey’s involvement in the first half of the book revolves around the continuation of the case of Misty (the young famous actress who went missing previously in the series). If you are up to date on the series you will know who is responsible for Misty’s death. You will also know that Caffrey also knows.  We are treated therefore, with a lot of posturing as Caffrey maintains the pretence of searching for Misty whilst trying to let Misty’s real killer the chance to talk to him. It is intriguing but I am pleased the story was kept as a sub plot rather than the main story.
It is the events at the institute that are the most interesting and has the best characters. Melanie is great as the hard-nosed boss with the vulnerable side, whilst Patience is a welcome comic relief to all the tension. It is the inmates that are the most intriguing though.  Monster Mother in particular is fascinating: Completely deluded, convinced she gave birth to all the other inmates and staff and dresses in a particular colour according to her mood, she is great to read.
As the events at the institute worsen and Caffrey is called in. More and more plot elements effortlessly fall into place and the result is a cleverly constructed novel that is well paced. Caffrey’s involvement on the case feels natural as the two stories converge.   
The ending is well handled and extremely satisfying. Reading some of the reviews now I have read the story I am slightly confused by the low rating some have given the books and their reasoning. “Poppet” is a solid entry into the Caffrey series aided by the fact that it has a strong plot as a backbone.
Having said that, I am slightly confused over the direction of the series. Mo Hayder wrote two fantastic books and then changed direction by relocating Jack Caffrey. The new books followed the “walking man,” and hinted at a larger story. However, in this entry the walking man is mentioned briefly and the series seems to have moved on. I just hope Mo Hayder knows where she is going.
My rating: 8.6

Monday, April 15, 2013

Book Review - A Fortress of Grey Ice

The Fortress of Grey Ice – J V Jones
I had high hopes for J V Jones’ first book in the, “the Sword of Shadows” series and I was pleasantly surprised when “A Cavern of Black Ice” met all of them. Reviews heralded Jones as an author similar in style with George R R Martin, I agreed to an extant but also found a smidge of Abercrombie and a hint of Jennifer Fallon in there as well.
Knowing there was a long wait between books, I waited a long time to read the second book in the hope that the final book will be released when I get to it. My expectations were once again high.
The blurb:
The war to end all wars is coming. The Endlords are preparing themselves for invasion. City men and clansmen should come together to fight the dark forces, yet they feud amongst themselves. Only the Sull are preparing: an ancient, dwindling race, they fear this fight might be their last.
Before I start a review on the book itself, I would like to commend J. V. Jones on taking the effort to provide an in depth summary of the events that occurred in the first book. It is something I feel every fantasy book should have, but for some reason is never provided. All TV series do it, sometimes from one episode to the next. It just makes the reading experience that bit better.
In this instance not only did the summary provide a vital refresh of book one, but it also increased my excitement for the book I was about to read.
The Fortress of Grey Ice continues straight after the events of the first book. Once again the terrain is tough and the weather is bleak. Somehow, J. V. Jones continues to convey just how harsh and cold her world is, without it once sounding boring. The freezing temperature reaches out to you and makes you feel the chill.
The main character is again Raif, with other characters also getting their own points of view. In the first book, although I enjoyed Raif Severance, I found the people he interacted with more interesting than him. In this book however, it was Raif’s chapters that I enjoyed the most. Raif is far more vulnerable in this book. He fails early on in his mission and soon finds himself out of options of people he can turn to.
As a result Raif finds himself amongst the Maimed Men. It is here, he is reduced to surviving on his wits in a way of life alien to him. He is eager to prove himself yet at the same time cautious not to overstep the mark. The outcome is a much more likeable Raif who is pro-active and chooses his own destiny.
Ash Marsh too goes on a journey of discovery as she joins up with the Sull. The time she spend with the two mysterious Sull is intriguing. J. V. Jones uses these characters to carefully drip feeds us information about the world and its history. We knew from the first book that Ash was important, but in this book her potential is met with indifference. The Sull are happy to have acquired her, but she is dispensable. It is a nice touch as it makes her vulnerable.
Effie on the other hand, comes across as the victim a bit more. She is protected by a few who are loyal to her but is mostly passive in the events that unfold. She does however, have one defining moment that hints at the woman to come.
It is Raina who emerges as the strong force in the novel though. Disillusioned with the direction of her clan under the leadership of her husband, she realises that she must make changes herself. The growth of her character is fascinating as her attempts to involve others in her schemes constantly meet dead ends.
Other familiar characters take more of a back sit. Penthero Iss continues to manipulate the royalty but we only see his malevolence in fleeting moments, whilst Angus Lok has a greatly reduced role, which is disappointing considering he was one of the highlights of the first book. The Dog Lord has a higher profile this time round, but despite liking his character, I found his story disjointed and not as engaging as the others.
There are new characters too. Crope Is an interesting man. A giant with considerable strength who is also dim-witted may sound stereotypical, but he is anything but. His chapters are among the best and his innocence is quite touching.  
 Robbie Dhoone is a nice edition. He is seen through the eyes of his younger brother Bram. Bram witnesses the rise of his brother to clan chief. Robbie recruits several men to his cause but in the process leaves his bewildered brother behind.
Unfortunately, in terms of the plot, all of these different points of view remain just that – different. There is hardly any interaction among the main characters and so, no matter how excellent the writing is, or how interesting the storylines are, you never get a sense they are building towards anything. You can see where some characters are going to cross paths in future, but for the moment, each person continues in their own secluded arc.
This is not a bad thing, but the story would have benefitted with a tighter plot or at least a resolution to some of the characters. The ending despite being exciting and well written feels very similar to the first book and you get the sense that not much has been resolved. The final confrontation is also a little disappointing. It is confusing and over quickly.
All in all, I really enjoyed the “Fortress of Grey Ice.” In places it is excellent and there are never any moments where I felt it dragged, despite it being a large novel. However, it does suffer from the middle book syndrome, where the character’s arcs have all sprawled out in different directions and there is no sign of them coming together. This spoils the book a little although I am already looking forward to reading book three.
My Rating: 8.6

Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review - Lords of the Bow

Lords of the Bow – Conn Iggulden.
I loved Wolf of the Plains. The Mongol period of time was one that I am quite ignorant about and Conn’s first book enthralled me. The only downside I felt was that it had such an epic feel to the book that I couldn’t see where the series could go that would maintain my interest.
The Blurb:
He came from over the horizon, a single Mongol warrior surrounded by his brothers, sons, and fellow tribesmen. With each battle his legend grew and the ranks of his horsemen swelled, as did his ambition. For centuries, primitive tribes had warred with one another. Now, under Genghis Khan, they have united as one nation, setting their sights on a common enemy: the great, slumbering walled empire of the Chin.

A man who lived for battle and blood, Genghis leads his warriors across the Gobi Desert and into a realm his people had never seen before—with gleaming cities, soaring walls, and canals. Laying siege to one fortress after another, Genghis called upon his cunning and imagination to crush each enemy in a different way, to overcome moats, barriers, deceptions, and superior firepower—until his army faced the ultimate test of all.

In the city of Yenking—modern-day Beijing—the Chin will make their final stand, setting a trap for the Mongol raiders, confident behind their towering walls. But Genghis will strike with breathtaking audacity, never ceasing until the Emperor himself is forced to kneel.
Initially my fears were confirmed. At the start of the novel, Genghis is in charge of an army that moved to conquer distant lands and so a certain amount of intimacy with the character was lost as we are treated to their exploits on the field. There were still snippets of Genghis as he deals with other warrior generals who have been captured or attempt to negotiate with him, but the personal quest part of his journey had now evolved.
However this does not turn out to be a bad thing. Having dominated his own tribes, in trying to expand his empire Genghis is faced with new challenges. The Chin are ruthless and more advanced. They live in cities protected by brick and stone, a concept Genghis has never faced before. It is nice to see Genghis fail in his attempts to conquer them.
Other characters emerge to take more of a prominent role. We get to experience Temuge, Khasar and Kachiun all emerge and grow. Kachium despite his younger age, demonstrates why he is the wiser choice to succeed Genghis if that need ever occur, whilst Temuge pulls away from the savage world he grew up in and becomes increasingly enthralled by the more civilised society.
New characters are also interesting with special mention to the Shaman Kokchu. Kokchu is deliciously realised as the villain. He is a character that everyone suspects but out of fear of the spirit world do not dare challenge. It is only Genghis’s wife Borte that really has the gall to openly show her revulsion for his fraudulent display of power.
The plot is really quite simple and focuses on Genghis’s pursuit of dominating the Chin. As a result we are treated to many battles and sieges. Whilst these are well described, I did get a sense of detachment that I did not experience in the first book. As I mentioned earlier, the action is a lot less personal than the first book and so it is difficult to be fully engaged.
The time when the book really shines are the periods between the battles that involve Genghis interacting with other characters. This is where the books really shone in my opinion and I found myself longing for these to be expanded.
The ending is well handled. The climatic battle is probably the best part of the book as several events happen to individuals rather than on mass. There are several seeds planted throughout to kick start plot threads in future books without leaving the book with a sense of being unresolved
Overall, I liked this entry to the series but not as much as I enjoyed the first. I hope the third book returns to a more personalised story.
My rating: 8.0

Friday, April 5, 2013

Book Review - Kill me if you can

Kill me if you can – James Patterson & Marshall Karp

I tend to steer clear of James Patterson’s collaborative efforts these days. The only exceptions are: if I am really in the mood for a quick read, it is really cheap or the reviews are good. This book seemed to tick all three boxes and the reviews were favourable and promised and a surprising twist.
The blurb:
Matthew Bannon, a poor art student living in New York City, finds a duffel bag filled with diamonds during a chaotic attack at Grand Central Station. Plans for a worry-free life with his gorgeous girlfriend Katherine fill his thoughts--until he realizes that he is being hunted, and that whoever is after him won't stop until they have reclaimed the diamonds and exacted their revenge.

Trailing him is the Ghost, the world's greatest assassin, who has just pulled off his most high-profile hit: killing Walter Zelvas, a top member of the international Diamond Syndicate. There's only one small problem: the diamonds he was supposed to retrieve from Zelvas are missing. Now, the Ghost is on Bannon's trail--but so is a rival assassin who would like nothing more than to make the Ghost disappear forever. From "America's #1 storyteller" (Forbes) comes a high-speed, high-stakes, winner-take-all thrill ride of adrenaline-fueled suspense.
The story telling in “Kill me if you can” is as basic as you can get. I am not saying that is bad, but in regards to depth it really is not existence. A typical chapter would be to set a brief scene, either have a brief exchange of dialogue or recall a past memory and then end on a slight cliffhanger. This is the format for all of Patterson’s collaborative efforts and works if you know what you are getting.
“KMIYC” is told from the first person perspective of Matthew Bannon. Matthew is quite likeable and whilst his romance with his girlfriend Katherine is identical to every other romance in Patterson’s books it comes across o.k. The twist that many reviewers mention is as plain as the nose on your face. I was pleased it was revealed early on so it eliminated the tedium of having figured it out.
The remaining characters are nothing to write home about. They serve their purpose but do not spark any interest beyond that, occasionally carrying out violent or sickening acts to maintain reader interest.
The strength of the novel lies in the story. It is not complex, not intricate and definitely not deep but it is dam enjoyable. “Kill me if you can” implies a man running from someone fearing for his life, and that is exactly what this story is. A mad, breathtaking, sprint of a novel that is enjoyable to read in one or two sittings.
Yes it has multiple flaws for example there are an unusual high quantity of sex scenes at the start. Not a problem, but they are never that great and when the substance in between them is not detailed they did become a little monotonous.
The book takes place across a variety of locations with Patterson only dropping a few well known landmarks to describe the new surroundings.
The ending is satisfying and wraps up things nicely without being overly contrived. Overall. I will keep referring back to the point, if you know what you are getting before you start reading, than this book hits the mark. Perfect for a swift read to enjoy.
My rating: 8.4

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Book Review - The Marvellous Land of Oz

Marvellous Land of Oz – Frank L Baum
Product Details
Frank L Baum’s first book that told the well known tale of how Dorothy and her unique friends stumbled to the Emerald city to meet the great wizard of Oz surprised me. It differed quite a bit from the film and was rather simplistic even for a children’s book. However, I found I enjoyed it immensely and was eager to read more of the novels set in Oz.
The Marvellous Land of Oz is Frank L Baum’s follow-up that he wrote several years later and mainly because the fans demanded it.
The Blurb:
The sequel to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and set shortly after the events in the first book, The Marvellous Land of Oz follows the adventures of a young boy named Tip, who, for as long as he can remember, has been under the guardianship of a witch named Mombi in the Land of Oz. One night he plans his escape to the Emerald City, stealing Mombi's powder of life. Along the way he meets with our old friends the Scarecrow and Tin Woodman as well as making some new ones such as Jack Pumpkinhead, the Wooden Sawhorse, the Highly Magnified Woggle-Bug, and the amazing Gump. Can they escape Mombi and make it to the Emerald City? A fantastical tale of endless imagination, The Marvellous Land of Oz is as exciting and endearing today as it was when first published over eighty years ago.

The Marvellous Land of Oz is a considerably shorter book than its predecessor, it is also more rounded. Frank L Baum takes his time to tell the story and although the protagonists still jump from scene to scene and find their problems resolved in a few sentences, the author takes more time and care with the characters in this second entry.
Kip is developed better than Dorothy. He is given more of a voice, although not much. The Scarecrow and Tin Woodsman (who actually gets a name this time round) are both good characters, each fixated on the gifts they received from the wizard. The real stars of the book through are Kip’s creations – Jack the Pumpkin head and the Saw-Horse. Jack is a hypochondriac, afraid of anything and everything that may hurt his head – even though he is not educated enough to know what that might be! Whilst the Saw-horse is bitter and grouchy.
The result is an assortment of characters that are genuinely comical. At times I felt I was almost reading a Terry Pratchett book. The lines that some of the characters mutter are truly funny. There is also evidence of satire in the novel. Frank L Baum does a wonderful job of laughing at the treatment of women by having them rise up and usurp the throne with their knitting needles as weapons.
This is the main plot of the novel but really serves as a means for the character to explore Oz and argue amongst themselves as they stumble from one adventure to the next. That is not to say that it is not interesting. The leader of the women is JinJur, a woman who acts somewhere between a smug ruler and a spoilt little girl. She is assisted by Mombi – who is a witch without being a witch and who also used Kip as an errand boy come slave. Both serve as good antagonists, the former naively but the latter what I expected the wicked witch of the West to be in the first book.
There is also something of a twist in the story which contributes nicely to the overall flow of the novel.
All in all, the Marvellous Land of Oz is a more rounded and accomplished effort from Frank L Baum. A little more time has been taken with each setting and character and the overall plot is more comprehensive. For such a quick and easy read, I can see myself blasting through the whole Oz series.
My rating 8.5