Friday, December 27, 2013

Book Review - Disturbia

Disturbia – Christopher Fowler 

Christopher Fowler is an author that I have always heard mentioned on forums etc and vowed to check out. Disturbia it seems is one of his better books so when I saw it cheap in a book store I took the plunge and purchased it. The premise sounded good but for some reason it has languished on my book shelf for a number of years.

The Blurb:

An assignment brings Vincent - permanent student and budding young writer - into the world of Sebastian Wells and the Prometheus League. Under the guise of a Victorian gaming society it operates extremist and covert activities. Threatening exposure, Vincent is thrown into a game of life or death.

First off, the prose took me by surprise. I am not sure what I was expecting, but Christopher Fowler’s vocabulary is certainly accomplished and his observations of the class segregation in society and the decline of London as a thriving enterprise are depicted well with a good grounding in the subject matter.

I will admit openly, that politics does very little for me. Cynical observations of the various political stances are wasted on my mind. Call it ignorance, stupidity whatever you want, but I have an inability to engage on the subject matter, so unfortunately large portions of the commentary passed me by.

Still if a novel has a good plot and good characters then in my mind that is all that matters.

As the blurb highlights, the novel follows Vincent as he becomes embroiled in a world he knows little of but is keen to expose. It essentially exists of two parts. Part one concerns itself with Vincent meeting and interviewing Sebastian Wells. Whilst part 2 deals with the deadly game that Vincent finds himself an unwilling participant off as he struggles to survive.

If you asked me before hand which of the two parts I would have been most interested in, I would have said part two. However, it is the first part that is by far the strongest.

Vincent is a decent character. He is disillusioned with life and has no real career path, despite showing plenty of potential as a promising writer. He is told to create an assignment that will make a name for himself and on a whim, he selects Sebastian Wells as his subject matter.

Sebastian Wells is a “well to do” toff with a shady past. He has never worked a day in his life but despite engaging in many extra-curricular activities, always seems to have controversy follow him.  He is the member of Prometheus League which is shrouded in mystery itself.

And so a series of interviews begins where Vincent tries to extract the juicy details from Vincent’s life without pushing too far and upsetting the man. It makes for intriguing reading as a certain cat and mouse routine is played out.

Vincent wrestles with his conscience as he is torn between liking the affable Sebastian and enjoying the wealthy lifestyle he is afforded as a result, and uncovering dribs and drabs about the man’s past that are scandalous.

Sebastian Wells is a charming character. Unapologetically arrogant, yet at the same time, intrigued by Vincent - it is a good study of both characters.

The second part however fails to match the first. The game that is set up for Vincent to play consists of 10 challenges. All of these have strict time limits and involve Vincent solving cryptic clues and going to the appointed location for the next clue.

It is a good premise, but fails to deliver on multi fronts. First of all, the clues are so complex that the reader does not have a hope of solving any of them. This spoils the fun a little, but even when Vincent does figure out the solution, it is rarely satisfying. The clues rely on knowledge and tenuous links that only specialist will know.

Secondly, some of the clues are solved by completely unbelievable coincidences. For example one of them is solved by a random tramp passing by, who Vincent happens to bump into when he lands on an elder lady after jumping out of the window. That said tramp happens to be an expert on the subject matter makes the book completely implausible.

Thirdly, the game is deadly, people die. Unfortunately, those that die are barely introduced and so when they are killed, the reader has no emotional attachment to them. What is worse, with the strict time limit in between each clue Vincent still manages to stop and have sex for 40 minutes with a complete random – come on!

The ending is merely satisfying. There are no real revelations and it is all pretty predictable.

Overall, I think disappointed sums up how I felt about Disturbia. It is not a bad novel by any stretch of the imagination. The first half is quite good, whilst not necessarily being my cup of tea. The second half also has some genuinely good and tense moments but the implausibility of half of it completely spoilt the novel for me.

My rating: 6.7 

Monday, December 23, 2013

Book Review - The Night Circus

The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

Fictional books on the circus are fast becoming a favourite of mine. There is something about the mystique of the subject matter, the unknown. Everyone wants to believe there is more going on behind the scenes of the colourful tents and the spectacular performances. I’ve previously loved, Ray Bradbury’s “Something Wicked this Way comes” and Robert Jackson Bennett’s “the Troupe.” I hoped I would enjoy “the Night Circus” just as much.

The blurb:

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads:

Opens at Nightfall

Closes at Dawn

As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears.

Le Cirque des RĂªves

The Circus of Dreams.

Now the circus is open.

Now you may enter.

This book is nothing like I thought it would be. That is not meant as a negative, but sometimes you get it in your head as what a book is going to be like and then it completely surprises you.”The Night Circus,” does just that.

The circus in this book is more of a stage for a grander game to be played out. Celia and Marco are two children that have been mentored since childhood to participate in a contest they do not truly understand. They are both brought up very differently, but their objectives are the same: one day they will enter the contest and they are under enormous pressure to win.

The rules of the game are never truly clear, which works in the books favour. As Celia and Marco try to figure out what is going on, so does the reader. It seems that the game is to outdo the opponent with true magic and illusions until one is unable to compete anymore.
That is all there is to the main plot really, which is a shame, as something with a bit more depth would have elevated the book in my eyes. So are the characters memorable?

Celia is the more prominent character of the book. She is easy to root for as she is forced into the game by her father, Hector. Her childhood years are perhaps the most intriguing, but as a character she is pretty one dimensional.

Likewise the same could be said about Marco. Marco takes more of a backstage role in the circus but it is a role of great importance.

There are a host of other characters such as the founders of the circus who meet at their midnight feasts at regular intervals. The scenes involving this company of oddballs comprise the more interesting aspects of the novel as none of them can escape the lure of what they have created.
The other characters worth mentioning are Bailey, who is a young boy whose fate becomes entwined with that of the circus, a contortionist and a clock maker who becomes the founder of the reveurs – a devoted following of the circus.

Based on the plot and characters above, this would just be an average read. However, it is the circus that really shines. As seen through Bailey’s eyes the circus is truly a place of wonder. The tents created by the Marco and Celia are astounding, from the Ice garden to the cloud maze. The basic plot and characters are irrelevant when one is reading about such a beautifully described place.
The ending of the book is satisfactory if nothing special. When there the plot is light and a little confusing, you can’t expect much else.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. As a story it did not grab me in the way other circus tales have, but the description of the circus itself and just reading about it, is fascinating.

My rating: 8.1


Thursday, December 19, 2013

Book Review: The Persuader

The Persuader – Lee Child
The Persuader is the seventh outing for Lee Child’s wildly popular Jack Reacher series. The books are easy reads and always fun if a little formulaic. They start with the same basic premise Jack witnesses something he doesn’t like, gets involved and the problem always turns out to be more convoluted then he first believed. It is a simple formula and it works, if taken in small doses.
The blurb:
Never forgive, never forget. That's Jack Reacher's standard operating procedure. And Francis Xavier Quinn was the worst guy he had ever met. He had done truly unforgivable things. So Reacher was glad to know he was dead. Until the day he saw him, alive and well, riding in a limousine outside Boston's Symphony Hall.

Never apologize. Never explain. When Reacher witnesses a brutal attempt to kidnap a terrified young student on a New England campus, he takes the law into his own hands. That's his way, after all. Only this time, a cop dies, and Reacher doesn't stick around to explain. Has he lost his sense of right and wrong? Just because this time, it's personal?
Having harped on about being formulaic above, “the Persuader” opens with an original concept where Jack is automatically involved in an action sequence. He prevents an abduction of a rich boy and shoots a cop in the process. All is not what it seems of course and the next few chapters cleverly unveil the real plot that drives the narrative. 
Reacher is his classic self: assured, calculating and applying his military background to every situation. I have mentioned in previous reviews, that the stories involving Reacher that work best are when he is vulnerable. In this outing, Lee Child strikes the balance between Reacher being untouchable and then being at risk perfectly. 
As he is working deep undercover, he is constantly susceptible to being discovered. He has to be cautious at all times and Lee Child plays on his paranoia well. It also helps that the colleagues Reacher is forced to work with are not stupid as well. They may not suspect him immediately but they realise that something is not right and take an instant dislike to him.
The constant one-upmanship Reacher shares with Paulie is particularly entertaining. Paulie might not be anything but a jerk but he is a worthy nemesis for Jack. Especially as Jack realises his own limitations against the man.
However, the Reacher’s main adversary, Francis Xavier Quinn is woefully underdeveloped and considering he is the main reason Reacher involves himself in the undercover operation we see very little of him.
Instead, we are treated to several flashbacks where Jack meets a young soldier who investigates Francis’ actions. These are interesting, as the woman officer (Dominique Cole), allows the reader to explore Reacher’s more maudlin and reserved side. His memories are filled with regret, not only due to professional decisions he made, but also personal ones. Dominique herself is a good character and one that it would also have been nice to see more of.
The other characters are useful plot devices. Reacher works relatively closely with Duffy, a DEA agent who runs the operation and although Lee Child fleshes out Duffy’s character a little, she only ever pops in and out of the novel to progress the plot or manufacture a twist.
As always the novel is fast paced and interesting. There were some very repetitive phrases for example, the amount of time a character spoke and Jack Reacher “said nothing,” began to grate a little. The action however, was top notch. There is a great slobber knocker in there, and Child creates a lot of tension towards the end of the novel where Reacher finds himself in a particularly perilous position.
The ending is somewhat disappointing. The showdown at the end looks promising but then stutters before being resolved quickly. It leaves a sense of anti-climax which is unusual for a Child novel.
Overall, this is a worthy addition to the series. Fans will know exactly what to expect and will not be disappointed.
My rating: 8.3

Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Review - Unnatural Creatures (JS)

Unnatural Creatures by Neil Gaiman

Review by Jacqui Slaney

This book was suggested to me as an offer on Amazon, now I get loads of these daily and generally ignore, but saw the name of the author of this one and thought I would indulge.

This is the description:

Chosen and introduced by Neil Gaiman, this thoroughly beguiling collection of short stories is inhabited by an amazing menagerie of creatures from myth, legend and dark imagination.

Now anyone that has previously read some of my reviews knows that I have a soft spot for tales of dragons, and by extension all other mythical creatures as well, so I was very interested to see what these short stories would be like.

These stories are of varied quality, which I have often found in such collections even when there is just one writer involved. However, the good thing is, even though you may not be very keen on one story, you can always jump onto the next.

I must admit I stuck with each tale, even if I found the story not completely to my taste, I cannot actually say that I disliked any of them enough to stop reading. They were also short, so it was no real hardship to read to the end.

I knew some of the authors, for instance Larry Niven, E Nesbit, Peter Beagle, Saki and obviously Neil Gaiman, but the others were new to me, most of which I really enjoyed.

To give you some ideas of the stories, here are a few snippets.  You have a story about a time traveller sent back in time to capture a horse, but finds instead something that looks like the picture he has, except for one difference. There is a very entertaining story about a sunbird, this I will admit was one of my favourites, and shows the dangers of eating very hot food. There is also an old story about a little girl’s journey to see a relative, sounds quite straightforward you would think, but no, and a brilliant story about the exhibits in the natural history museum.

Before each story there is also a foreword by Neil Gaiman, in which you can read a little about the author and it gives you a taster of the story to come, he also wrote the main introduction to the book that is great.

All in all this is a fun collection of stories to read and  being a collection you can jump in and out of the book, so you do not have to read it solidly, would recommend the book to anyone, especially if you like Neil Gaiman.

8 out of 10

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book Review - Dead Simple

Dead Simple – Peter James        
Dead Simple
Peter James is an author I have heard a lot of good things about but have never got round to reading. My wife has often mentioned the premise of this book and I had to admit it sounds good. I mean a stag (not the deer variety) trapped in a coffin – how cool is that?
The blurb:
It was meant to be a harmless stag night prank. A few hours later four of his best friends are dead, and Michael Harrison has disappeared. With only three days to the wedding, Detective Superintendent Grace - a man haunted by the shadow of his own missing wife - is contacted by Michael's beautiful, distraught fiancee, Ashley Harper. Grace discovers that the one man who ought to know Michael Harrison's whereabouts is saying nothing. But then he has a lot to gain - more than anyone realizes. For one man's disaster is another man's fortune ...
“Dead Simple,” marks the start of the Roy Grace series. Roy himself is not immediately introduced which is refreshing as it allows the author to flesh out some of the secondary characters more.
In order to build a successful series of books around a character that character needs to be interesting and often they have to have a flaw. All too often that flaw is an addiction to alcohol which as a stereotype can get a little tedious. Grace’s flaw is that he sometimes uses mediums to help him solve crimes. It is a refreshing idea, as Peter James plays with people’s prejudices towards such a notion and has Grace ridiculed by colleague’s and chastised by his superiors.
At the start of the novel, Grace’s propensity towards the supernatural have a direct impact on a case he is working on and makes for a great side story, however this fades away as the main plot kicks in which is a shame.
Grace also has a past which is intriguing. His wife vanished from his life and was never found. It adds another dimension to his character as he tries to move on with his life but can’t quite let go.
The rest of the characters aren’t quite as well realised, although that does not necessarily make them boring. They all have their functions to play and do not stray too far from it. For example, Michael is the groom-to-be trapped in the coffin and despairing in the process, Ashley is the grieving widow and everyone else is only distinctive by their job title.
For such a good premise, there is only one way for the novel to go in order for it to be a crime novel. In a sense then, the story is highly predictable. Thankfully Peter James recognises this it seems and reveals some of his hand halfway through the book which helps the momentum going.
Maybe, I’ve read too many crime novels but there were numerous plot holes in “Dead Simple,” normally I don’t look for them as they spoil my enjoyment but there were a couple of glaring ones here or instances where characters did not make logical choices. To detail them would spoil the story but I did find myself screaming at some characters every now and then to check the obvious.
Overall for a debut novel this was an enjoyable read. The prose was quick and easy and I whizzed through the pages. Peter James has also introduced secondary characters that I want to find out more about, which is always a good sign in a series. “Dead Simple” was not without its problems but a quick read I’d recommend.
My rating: 7.9

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review - The Racing Factions (JS)

The Racing Factions by Robert Fabbri


Review by Jacqui Slaney
Having read all the current books in the Vespasian series and enjoyed them, I bought this novella without hesitation. The racing teams are mentioned a great deal by Magnus in the stories especially his favourites the Greens, so it was good to read a story about them.
This is the description:
Marcus Salvius Magnus is a fanatical supporter of the Green Racing Faction and expects a wager to be honoured. Although he does not presume honesty from anyone, he does believe that a bookmaker at the Circus Maximus should record each bet scrupulously and pay the full amount due. However, Ignatius, the bookmaker, is foolish enough to attempt to cheat Magnus out of his winnings, incurring not only his wrath but that also of the South Quirinal Crossroads Brotherhood of which Magnus is the leader. In the shady realm of Rome's underworld Magnus will use the full resources of his criminal fraternity to exact appropriate vengeance. However, Magnus also has a problem: his patron, Gaius Vespasius Pollo, is attempting to get his nephew, Sabinus, elected as a quaestor. To do this he feels that the support of the senior consul, Gnaeus Domitius Ahenobarbus, would be more than useful. He asks Magnus to ease the consul - a man known for his extreme violence - in the right direction. Ahenobarbus has a passion: the Red Faction at the circus. Could it be that Magnus might wash two tunics in the same tub, bringing Ignatius down and securing Ahenobarbus' support by attempting to fix a chariot race in a manner that has never been done before?
Again, like the last novella, the main characters are Magnus and his crossroad brotherhood. Magnus is an amusing character in the main series, and I have really liked reading the back-story that the writer has created for him.
In this story, you find Magnus successful in a win at the races but when going to collect his winnings, he finds himself cheated by his bookmaker. Definitely not the smartest thing to do you would think against a group such as the brotherhood, but the bookmaker thinks he is untouchable, wrong!  What follows is an elaborate plan of revenge, which assists Magnus’s patron as it unfolds and so helps Magnus even more. 
This is not a long story, it’s quick and fun to read, but you get a real taste  of the Romans enjoyment of these races and the joy and fury that they lead to.
Read this is if you have tried some  of the other Vespasian books and definitely if you are new to the series as these novellas are a great introduction to some very good writing skills.
8 out of 10

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review - Ready for Murder

Ready for Murder – (not the) Joe Hill     
Ready For Murder (A Harry Strong Mystery - #1) (The Harry Strong Mysteries) 
I am rapidly becoming a major Joe Hill fan so when I saw this on this novella on the Kindle store I snapped it up, looking for a quick easy read. Didn’t read the premise, didn’t need to, it is Joe Hill after all.
The Blurb:
Ready For Murder is the first book in the Harry Strong Mystery Series. Harry Strong is a man haunted by his past. An ex-cop, he now barely keeps afloat by running his own detective agency. But he begins to unravel the day rich and successful mystery writer Julia Weston walks into his life. She is the prime suspect in the brutal murder of her boyfriend Jimmy Chandler, and hires Harry to prove her innocence. But as Harry delves into the writer’s past, he finds several startling coincidences between her mystery crime novels and real life murders. Is this merely a coincidence or is there a sinister reason why the beautiful and seductive Julia Weston consorts with convicted murderers and has a trail of unsolved murders in her past?
There comes a point in any blogger’s writing career when they have to think very carefully about how scathing they are going to be. In my opinion, even if I didn’t enjoy a book, having written one myself, I know the heartache and exertion that goes into writing and publishing and therefore try to pick up the positives amongst the negatives.
I so very nearly put this book down in disgust. Let’s get one thing straight. This is not written by Joe Hill, son of Stephen King and author of the excellent N0S4R2. Anyone that has read that Joe Hill’s books will be aware of that immediately. Now, I appreciate that there are several Joe Hill’s out there in the world and just because this particular one shares his name with another author it does not mean he should alter it. I suspect however, that this author is merely enjoying the fame of his namesake and the resulting downloads but I could be wrong.
Ultimately though, this was my mistake. I got the wrong Joe Hill and I blame myself. However, it was not the reason I nearly gave up on the novella. The reason is far more outrageous. This novel is “Basic Instinct,” with different names. If it was a novelisation of the film it would be incredibly accurate. As things stand though, there is nothing in the blurb to indicate anything of the sort, in fact the names have been changed to cement the distinction.
So am I just being unfair. Is the premise just similar? Hell no. I would say read it for yourself to see but I don’t believe you should be handing over your money for such a blatant rip-off and I do mean rip-off. From the opening murder season with the sex and the screwdriver, to the interrogation scene where the main suspect is wearing a white dress, with no underwear (there is even the, “what you going to do arrest me for smoking?” line), to the violent sexual encounter with the protagonist’s therapist and the crazed lesbian lover of Sharon Stone. This is as blatant as you can get.
I was so disgusted that I was going to put it down and demand a refund. The only reason I didn’t was because I hadn’t seen the movie in ages and had forgotten how it ended. Honestly that is the only reason.
And yet, the writing is not bad. It flows well and clips along at an enjoyable pace. The author has talent but does not have an original thought in his body. I even Googled the script from the film and would you believe it the dialogue is the same in places.
I recognise that this is not a review of the plot and characters but I refuse to do that in this instance. I would essentially be review Basic Instinct and attributing to someone else’s name.
I don’t understand what has gone on here. Am I missing something? Was this the original novel re-released? I have searched Google and found nothing but if I have got the wrong end of the stick I apologise. But for me, this is an outrageous copy of another medium passed off as an original piece of fiction.
My rating 2 out of 10.