Thursday, June 26, 2014

Book Review - Mr Mercedes

Mr Mercedes – Stephen King

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

The Blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 8.7

Monday, June 23, 2014

Book Review - Dust (JS)

Dust by Hugh Howey (Wool Trilogy 3)

Review by Jacqui Slaney

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

This is the description:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

10 out of 10

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Book Review - Zoo

Zoo – James Patterson

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

The blurb:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My rating: 6.9

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Book Review - Sworn in Steel

Sworn in Steel – Douglas Hulick

To say I have been looking forward to this book is an understatement. Among Thieves was a great read: Brilliant world-building, fast-paced, great characters and above all fun. Sworn in Steel has been anticipated by many, unfortunately it suffered many delays. Could it possibly live up to the hype?

The blurb:

It's been three months since Drothe killed a legend, burned down a portion of the imperial capital, and unexpectedly elevated himself into the ranks of the criminal elite. Now, as the newest Gray Prince in the underworld, he's learning just how good he used to have it.

With barely the beginnings of an organization to his name, Drothe is already being called out by other Gray Princes. And to make matters worse, when one dies, all signs point to Drothe as wielding the knife. As members of the Kin begin choosing sides - mostly against him - for what looks to be another impending war, Drothe is approached by a man who not only has the solution to Drothe's most pressing problem, but an offer of redemption. The only problem is the offer isn't for him.

Now Drothe finds himself on the way to the Despotate of Djan, the empire's long-standing enemy, with an offer to make and a price on his head. And the grains of sand in the hour glass are running out, fast . . .

The answer is “no,” followed by “kinda.” I was incredibly disappointed with the first half of this novel.  The opening chapter aside, I found it a bit of a mess to be honest. There were a few highlights but it was so disjointed, with so many new characters/factions introduced that dare I say I found it a bit of a slog initially.

In Among Thieves Drothe was a fantastic character, but he is almost unrecognisable here. In Among Thieves he was up against the odds but had wit and charm to guide him through. In Sworn in Steel he was moody and sulky. His struggle to deal with his new position as Grey Prince and his quest to establish what exactly was going on was hard to read rather than be fun. 

I understand that he was attempting to deal with betraying his best friend Degan, but there was never a time where I felt comfortable that he was in control of what he was doing. He stumbled around from stranger to stranger, uncovering half truths and lies and never seeming to get anywhere. Whilst this mystery could have been intriguing the fact that Drothe loses his sense of identity so completely bothered me.

For the first half of the book, the only character I really enjoyed was Fowler. She at least had the sense to stand up to Drothe and slap the stupidity out of him. Much like Lynch did with Locke in the first half of Red Seas Over Red Skies, Hulick takes a protagonist we all loved and then changes his character as he wallows in self pity. Unlike Jean Tannen in RSORS, Fowler does not feature enough to make up for the absence of “fun” Drothe.

The plot is not particularly inspiring either. Drothe must discover a way into the city to even begin his proper investigation of finding Degan. This process takes so long and is belittled when other characters later on in the book seem to do it with ease.

Having said that, the book shifts for the better in a big way around the halfway mark. Suddenly the characters that were introduced have revelations that make them interesting. The twists come thick and fast and everything that Drothe thinks he has uncovered turns out to be misleading or downright false.

It is no coincidence that the book improves when Degan inevitably appears (although he also suffers from an excruciating amount of self-pity). Still, once the plot becomes clear it seems Hulick’s gets into his stride and the book is as good as his debut.

Drothe regains some of his arrogance and starts to have a bit more fight to him. The history of the Degans is fascinating and adds to the whole understanding of how the empire was established. There are still some plot points that are randomly dropped but overall the sub-plots particularly the one involving Aribah is actually very good.

The ending is well done and the main story arcs are all tied off nicely with a good resolution. The final showdown is excellent and without spoiling anything I loved how Hulick chose to end the combat.

One other negative point that I must mention is the poor editing in the Kindle edition. I don’t mind the occasional misspelt word (just check my reviews out!) but in this book there was more than the above average amount of errors. Since I started noticing there was another 10 glaring errors. These were not your, “of’s” instead of “or’s” or left off punctuation (although there were plenty of these too), but things like “Fatter” rather than “Flatter,” and other words that changed the meaning of the sentence. There were also repeated words and weird spaces in some words. I can understand if the book was rushed out for publication but in a book as delayed as this, it was a real shame and sloppy.

Overall, Sworn in Steel was a book of two halves. The first half was not very engrossing and very disappointing but the second was up to the standard of the debut novel I loved.

My rating 7.5

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review - Men at Arms (audio) (JS)

Men at Arms (audio) by Terry Pratchett

Review by Jacqui Slaney

Being a big fan of the Discworld novels and having read the majority of them, I suppose it was a natural progression to try an audio book.

I have been resistant for a while, as when I read a book, I have my own idea of how the characters should sound, but after being offered a free audio copy, how could I resist?

This is the description: 

The town of Ankh-Morpork is in big trouble, and the City Watch is desperate for a few good men to protect it. However, all they have are the dwarves Corporal Carrot and Lance-constable Cuddy; the troll Lance-constable Detritus; Lance-constable Angua, who is believed to be a woman; and, worst of all, Corporal Nobbs, who has been disqualified from the human race for shoving! These underdogs need all the help they can get, for they have been given only 24 hours to clean up the war-torn town.

Despite not being overly keen on the idea of the audio format, I will admit that I was won over quite quickly. Nigel Planer narrates this series, and I found hearing the story, if anything made it more real.

I loved the different voices of the characters with the Librarian being one of my favourites, and Vimes inner monologue. Though they were obviously, not how I imagined them to be, (I never thought of Sgt Colon as being Irish sounding) the voices did fit the characters well.
The story revolves round a strange new weapon that appears to have been stolen from the assassins’ guild. Bodies are being discovered yet Captain Vimes is ordered not to investigate by the Patrician, and the Watch is even ordered to stand down. Vimes is also getting married and looks like he is retiring forever, so could this be the end of the Night Watch?

There is the usual humour here, the kind that makes you laugh to yourself and makes people look at you suspiciously, (especially when you are on public transport and it doesn’t look like you are reading a book). But there is also a darker side, which as always makes the Disc world novels stand out from the run of mill novels.

Without giving away the story line, I can say that do not worry too much about the Watch, Vimes and his men will be with us for a while yet, thankfully as anyone who has read any of the reviews that I have written about the Disc world know that these characters are my favourites.

If you haven’t read any of the Discworld books then I would definitely recommend this one, it’s better if you have read or listened to the other guards books, but even without prior knowledge, you will still enjoy it, and definitely try this format, just be wary of the funny looks that you may attract when you suddenly laugh.

10 out of 10

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Book Review - The Wolf in Winter

The Wolf in Winter – John Connolly

John Connolly has been one of my favourite authors every since his debut novel. I’ve read all of his books except for his newest series and can honestly say that none of them has been below 8 out of 10. They are of the highest quality and I would recommend them to anyone.

The blurb:

The community of Prosperous, Maine has always thrived when others have suffered. Its inhabitants are wealthy, its children's future secure. It shuns outsiders. It guards its own. And at the heart of the Prosperous lie the ruins of an ancient church, transported stone by stone from England centuries earlier by the founders of the town...

But the death of a homeless man and the disappearance of his daughter draw the haunted, lethal private investigator Charlie Parker to Prosperous. Parker is a dangerous man, driven by compassion, by rage, and by the desire for vengeance. In him the town and its protectors sense a threat graver than any they have faced in their long history, and in the comfortable, sheltered inhabitants of a small Maine town, Parker will encounter his most vicious opponents yet.

Charlie Parker has been marked to die so that Prosperous may survive.

Prosperous, and the secret that it hides beneath its ruins...

“The Wolf in Winter” marks the twelve entry into the Charlie Parker series. As I mentioned above this series has been lagged in the slightest. Connolly also knows how to keep the series fresh.

So often when a series gets to this stage they either become a formulaic or they rely on the secondary characters taking a more prominent role to keep things interesting. Although the Charlie Parker series has a great supporting cast of recurring characters, Connolly has never had to rely on either of these techniques.

Instead it is his prose and storytelling that keeps me coming back. To me the most important thing in a story is the characters and dialogue. Whilst John Connolly has these in abundance, I could read his prose all day long.  He has a way of capturing the atmosphere of a town that is so beautiful it is almost poetic. The descriptions are vivid without being too long and in one sentence he can invoke ideas in you that you had never thought of.
However, this is not the reason the series remains so bright. Connolly’s books contains darkness, psychology, humour and the supernatural. He manages to blend all of these facets seamlessly, sometimes concentrating on one more than others.

In “The Wolf in Winter,” he combines all of the above. It has been a while since Connolly has delved into the supernatural elements with Parker. When he does it feels organic. Some authors hint at ethereal entities in our world but always leave it up to the readers as to whether or not what the characters see is real. Connolly does not shy away from this. The supernatural is very much there and accepted but it is not prominent and thrust down the reader’s throats. In short it is perfectly handled.

The plot focuses on the town of Prosperous. An insular town that whilst it never openly shuns its visitors, it makes it clear they are not welcome. It also contains a sinister secret that Parker is determined to find out.

Parker is his usual self. Driven, confident but with a strong moral compass. It is nice to see a more uneasy side of him in this novel. Whilst he is assured in his abilities as a detective, it is good to see that he is not as secure around his friends as we had previously been led to believe. There is one scene in particular that you realise that the friendship that the reader thought was a given is actually more based on mutual respect and could change at any moment.

The town and residents of Prosperous are great. Morland the police chief is also an excellent character. He strongly believes in the town but also is more open to the strong ethics of outsiders. He might carry out the tasks that need to be done, but he also appreciates the code of others.

I mentioned that Connolly has little difficulty keeping this series fresh. With this novel he manages to go in a new direction with the characters. I won’t expand more as I don’t want to spoil anything but the change in dynamics is well handled and insightful.

The conclusion as a result is satisfying without being hugely impactful. The plot points are all wrapped up nicely but more importantly you get the impression that the series (after twelve excellent books) is only just beginning.

Overall, The Wolf in Winter is an excellent entry to the series and one that will not disappoint fans of Connolly.

My rating: 9.1

Monday, June 2, 2014

Reread: Red Seas Under Red Skies (JS)

Red Seas under Red Sails by Scott Lynch (Reread)

Review by Jacqui Slaney

As I mentioned in my review of ‘Lies’ I have had book 3 of the Gentlemen Bastard series waiting to be read for quite a while. However, due to the length of time since reading the first two books I wanted to refresh my memory of my series. Having thoroughly enjoyed ‘Lies’ again on the reread I was full of confidence that I would enjoy this book just as much.

This is the description:

Escaping from the attentions of the Bonds magi Locke Lamora, the erstwhile Thorn of Camorr and Jean Tannen have fled their home city. Taking ship, they arrive in the city-state of Tal Varrar where they are soon planning their most spectacular heist yet; they will take the luxurious gaming house, The Sinspire, for all of its countless riches. No one has ever taken even a single coin from the Sinspire that was not won on the tables or in the other games of chance on offer there. However, as ever, the path of true crime rarely runs smooth and Locke and Jean soon find themselves co-opted into an attempt to bring the pirate fleet of the notorious Zamira Drakasha to justice. Fine work for thieves who do not know one end of galley from another. And all the while the Bonds magi are plotting their very necessary revenge against the one man who believes he has humiliated them and lived; Locke Lamora.

Within a short time of starting ‘Red Seas’ I realised that this book had a completely different feel about it. I had glanced at some reviews, and had been surprised at the mixed comments, but after starting the reread, I remembered how I had felt when I had first read it as well. You feel a slight disappointment that nothing is the same as ‘Lies’, that the fast paced plot with brilliant dialogue is not quite there and most disappointingly the characters of Locke and Jean are not hitting the mark.

I think the trouble was that ‘Lies’ is a tough act to follow. As a first book, it is an amazing piece of work that any established writer would be proud to call theirs and it sets an expectation in the reader that the second book will be even better or at least it is equal. When this expectation is not met, disappointment sets in and so you get the mixed reviews.

I have read many series where the second book is the stronger one, so what you have to do as a reader, is put to one side what you hoped this book 2 would be and enjoy it instead for what it is.
 Yes, I admit, that of the two books I much prefer ‘Lie’s but ‘Red Seas’ is an accomplished novel and you still have Locke and Jean. In this story, you see a much more vulnerable Locke as he is recovering from the action in book 1 and still trying to deal with the loss of his other Brothers. This makes for an uncomfortable relationship with Jean for a while, which I feel is one of the things that doesn’t fit well and as you go on, you do agree with Jean and wish that Locke would buck his ideas up.

What ever you feel about the two books, I would defy you to find better world building or detailing of scenes, such as in the Sinspire. These are excellent, and speaking as someone who is trying to write a fantasy novel, I hope that I could create such a world.

There is plenty of action and interesting characters are introduced to both help and hinder Locke and Jean, and by the end of the book, I was over much of my earlier disappointment. This is a worthwhile read, not quite the high of the first but still enjoyable and definitely necessary to read, if you are like me and am now moving onto the third.

8 out of 10