Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review - King of Swords

King of Swords – Nick Stone
It has been over four years since I read and loved Nick Stone’s debut novel Mr. Clarinet. I found the gritty mix of the detective story and the hint of the supernatural in the form of voodoo worship to be right up my street.
Quite why I waited so long to read the next in the series is beyond me.
Here is the blurb:
Miami, 1981. When Detective Max Mingus and his partner Joe are called to the scene of a death at Miami's Primate Park, it looks like another routine - if slightly bizarre - investigation. Until two things turn up: the victim's family, slaughtered; and a partly digested tarot card in the dead man's stomach. "The King of Swords" - an increasingly bloody trail leads Max and Joe first to a sinister fortune-teller and her scheming pimp son, then to the infamous Solomon Boukman. Few have ever met the most feared criminal in Miami, but rumours abound of a forked tongue, voodoo ceremonies and friends in very high places. Against a backdrop of black magic and police corruption, Max and Joe must distinguish the good guys from the bad - and track down some answers. What is the significance of the "King of Swords"? What makes those who have swallowed the card go on a killing spree just before they die? And can Max find out the truth about Solomon Boukman, before death's shadow reaches his own front door ...
As the blurb indicates, this is a prequel to Mr. Clarinet. I am not normally a fan of prequels unless they have relevance to future plot points. When they are just fleshed out stories of past events main characters happen to mention then I am normally disappointed. However, when they have a direct bearing on the way a character views their life and why their motivations are like they are, then I am much more invested in the prequel.
The latter is the case in point with King of Swords. The book focuses on three characters characters: Max Mingus, Joe Liston and Carmine. Max is the main character in Mr.Clarinet but he does not behave the same way. There are similarities of course, but in this story he is a lot more raw and despite having good intentions, he regularly walks the thin line between good and evil.
This is typified by the two people that influence his life the most. The first is his partner Joe and the other is his boss and father-like figure Eldon. Eldon is a complex character. He is as corrupt as they come but he truly believes he is delivering the greater good in his methods. His aim is to increase his empire in the police force and get the bad guys off the street. If this means cutting corners by sending known criminals down for crimes they did not commit, then so be it.
Max is only too aware of Eldon’s methods but is torn between the correct thing to do and achieving results. He can see the reasoning behind Eldon’s motivations but at the same time he recognises that he has lost his way in the implementation of those methods.
By contrast Joe is only too aware of what is going on and is deeply opposed. He has high morals and a belief in the system. He is a policeman and wants to do it the right way. It is only his like and respect for Max that clouds his judgement. The dynamic works, as rather than being a constant source of conflict and bickering, the two behave rationally and try to figure out the correct path.
Intermingled with all these politics of course is the enigmatic Solomon Boukman. A man that has built his criminal faction based on myths and legends. We mostly see Solomon through the point of view of Carmine his childhood friend. Carmine is a fascinating character in his own right. To the public he is a competent and feared pimp, but behind closed doors he is still a scared boy petrified by his despicable mother.
With such rich characters the book was always going to be readable, but the plot is tight, the pace is consistent and the criminals suitably sinister. Stone does a terrific job of portraying Solomon Boukman keeping him mysterious but at the same time believable. I know virtually nothing about the Haitian culture, but Stones description of it comes across as authentic and makes you want to learn more.
The ending is great, wrapping up all loose ends nicely. At times I was worried that it was being dragged out or in places rushed, but I think by the end of the book Stones got the narrative spot on. This was a pleasure to read and reminded me why I loved the first book so much.
My rating: 9.1

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review - Thud! (JS)

Thud! by Terry Pratchett
By Jacqui Slaney
Anyone who reads my reviews knows that I reread Terry Pratchett regularly especially when faced with lots of sitting round hospital waiting rooms. I always worry that I will take a new book on such a visit and not enjoy it, and then will be stuck there with nothing to read, so I tend to fall back on a tried and loved book such as a Discworld book and especially a commander Vimes story..
This is the description:
'Some people would be asking: whose side are you on? If you are not for us, you are against us. Huh. If you're not an apple, you're a banana'
Koom Valley, the ancient battle where the trolls ambushed the dwarfs, or the dwarfs ambushed the trolls, was a long time ago. But if he doesn't solve the murder of just one dwarf, Commander Sam Vimes of Ankh-Morpork City Watch is going to see it fought again, right outside his office. With his beloved Watch crumbling around him and war-drums sounding, he must unravel every clue, outwit every assassin and brave any darkness to find the solution. And darkness is following him.
Oh . . . and at six o'clock every day, without fail, with no excuses, he must go home to read 'where’s My Cow?’ with all the right farmyard noises, to his little boy. There are some things you have to do.
The story line is the bubbling feud between the Dwarfs and the Trolls that is about to erupt again in a second Koom valley, which as described in other books is the only battle in history where both sides tried to ambush the other. Here trouble is stirred by a murder of a dwarf and everyone knows that a troll did it as one of their clubs was found next to the body, so how much more proof do you need?
But Sam Vimes refuses to accept such clues, even as his dwarf and Troll officers resign from the Watch and pressure is mounting on the streets, he wants the Truth no matter what. There is also fearsome talk of an ancient entity, shown by a sign written in the dark of the mines, a sign that once found must be surrounded by light to keep the fear away.
I like all Sam Vimes novels, but this is one of my favourites. There are so many elements here of a great read, not least amongst them is the idea of Nobby Nobbs, the only man who has to carry a certificate to proof his is human, going out with a pole dancer called Tawny. There is also the tension between Angua the werewolf and Sally the new recruit who just happens to be a vampire, and I am sure that everyone will love Mr A.E Pessimal the government inspector.
  Most of all you have Sam Vimes, and in this book you see more of the conflict within him. The darkness that is touched upon in other stories and you see the meaning of ‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?’ You also get to read about his story telling skills to his young son, as no matter at 6’oclock that is where he will be. The one time he is late is quite impressive.
As always I recommend this book to anyone, you need to have a little back ground knowledge of the series to properly enjoy, otherwise you might not understand why a man over 6 foot considers himself a dwarf, but there is still a lot that any reader will like.
10 out of 10


Friday, September 19, 2014

Book Review - The Son

The Son – Philipp Meyer

I was looking for a Western and happened to spot this novel on the Audible recommendations list. The fact that it was narrated by Will Patton as well as two other actors furthered my interest. I had never listened to an audible book by more than one narrator before.

The Blurb:

Philipp Meyer, the acclaimed author of American Rust, returns with The Son: an epic of the American West and a multigenerational saga of power, blood, land, and oil that follows the rise of one unforgettable Texas family, from the Comanche raids of the 1800s to the to the oil booms of the 20th century.

Harrowing, panoramic, and deeply evocative, The Son is a fully realized masterwork in the greatest tradition of the American canon - an unforgettable novel that combines the narrative prowess of Larry McMurtry with the knife-edge sharpness of Cormac McCarthy.
The Son is divided up into three points of view (each actor logically reading from one character). What disappointed me was that the three characters all took place in slightly different time periods. I think I was expecting an audible book/play hybrid where the characters would be voiced by different actors but interact.

However, I will not mark the book down due to my expectations. What I will mark it down for is the quality of the points of view. The main point of view is from the Eli the Colonel and tells of his capture by Indians and his subsequent survival. For a long period of the book this is by far and away the superior narrative when compared to the other sections.

I say for long periods of the book because when Eli leaves the Indians his story loses its momentum. It is still interesting but not as intense.

The Colonel is a rigid character. He sees things from a black and white viewpoint and is uncompromising in his beliefs. Inevitably, he comes to acknowledge the Indian way of life and even respect them. The transition is superbly handled to the point neither Eli nor the reader knows it is happening.

The second character is his son Peter, who could not be more different from his father. Peter’s narration is told in the form of diary entries which could not be more tepid. He is an insular man not cut out for the bold and aggressive role that is required to him. Instead, what the reader gets is a depressive, limp specimen with nothing to endear the reader to.

His narration is a little repetitive and at times I just wished he would grow a backbone. Instead, his story seems to just peter out.

Finally there is Eli’s Great Granddaughter Jeannie, who through luck rather than tenacity becomes an oil tycoon. Again, there is nothing endearing about her character and at times I had to really force myself to concentrate on her sections.

Towards the very end, Philipp Meyer adds another POV character. This felt unnecessary and did not add much to the plot.

It is a shame as I really wanted to like this book. I kept hoping the stories would come together somehow but they never did. The ending was very disappointing with the chapters becoming increasingly shorter as if Phillip Meyer himself wanted the book to end and wanted to tie everything up.

Overall, I am a little bit mystified by the many 5* reviews the book has received. The 3* reviews sum up my feelings fairly accurately.  I could have done with a lot more of Eli with the Comanche Indians and with the stories of Peter and Jeannie cut out all together.

My rating 6.5

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review - American Elsewhere

American Elsewhere – Robert Jackson Bennett

I love discovering new authors. Even more so when I discover their debut novels before they become mainstream. Robert Jackson Bennet’s first two novels, Mr Shivers and The Company Man were well regarded but broadly flew under the radar. His excellent third novel, The Troupe, garnered a bit more attention. With his newly released 5th novel City of Stairs, receiving a lot of buzz, it appears RJB is about to deservedly hit the big time.

I thought it was about time I read his 4th novel!!

The blurb:

Ex-cop Mona Bright has been living a hard couple of years on the road, but when her estranged father dies, she finds she's had a home all along: a little house her deceased mother once owned in Wink, New Mexico.

And though every map denies Wink exists, Mona finds they're wrong: not only is Wink real, it is the perfect American small town, somehow retaining all the Atomic Age optimism the rest of world has abandoned.

But the closer Mona gets to her mother's past, the more she understands that the people in Wink are very, very different - and what's more, Mona begins to recognize her own bond to this strange place, which feels more like home every day.

RJB writes stories with big ideas. Mr Shivers was a great read until the ending got a bit confusing. With The Troupe I was in love with the writing and the intimate relationships until it suddenly explored fantastical concepts that are almost too difficult to comprehend. That is not to say they are not written well or difficult to understand, it is just RJB takes conventional thinking and stretches it so it is hard to imagine.

You know those videos you see on YouTube where they show our planets and then they show how much bigger the sun is in comparison. Then the screen slides along and there is an even bigger star that makes the sun look tiny and so on and so forth. Every time I read an RJB book I feel like that. With American Elsewhere he amplifies that feeling.

Now before I put any of you off by saying that, let me stress this is a brilliant novel.  Yes the ideas might require blue sky thinking but the writing is top notch. The science never blinds you and I always felt I had a good grasp of what is going on.

The novel focuses on Mona who inherits a house from her mother’s will. Mona has grown up believing her mum is crazy but is intrigued by the house and seeks to discover a more about her mother’s life before she had Mona.

Enter the secret town of Wink – the true star of the novel. Its inhabitants are odd to say the least. Everyone in the town are a little too perfect and a little too content to live the great American dream.

When Mona arrives she interrupts a funeral, an odd occurrence in Wink. As a result some of the neighbourhood are bitter towards her, whilst others avoid her altogether. Whatever the behaviour it is obvious they are all keeping one big secret.

Mona is a likeable character. As a former police officer, she can handle herself well and although inquisitive, she strikes the correct balance between arrogant and respectful to make you want to root for her.

The other characters are not as well fleshed out but with good reason. RJB keeps them deliberatively mysterious without ever infuriating the reader. The plot is revealed piece by careful piece and unfolds naturally. There is no big revelation but rather information is gleamed by events that occur the more Mona probes into the town’s history and secret.

The narrative is excellent. RJB has such an easy going writing style. There were times I had to remind myself that I was not reading a Stephen King book, as RJB effortlessly introduced characters and makes you interested in them.

The end of the book is about as hard science fiction as you can get. Normally this would be a massive turn off for me, but I loved it.

All in all, RJB hits another winner and I for one can’t wait to read City of Stairs.

My rating: 9.2

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Book Review - The 5th Wave (JS)

The 5TH Wave (Book 1) by Rick Yancey

Review by Jacqui Slaney

I suddenly realized after looking at my reading list that lately I had not read anything with aliens. I had read some good books but Sci-fi seemed to be sadly lacking, luckily as I was bemoaning this fact, I came across this book.

This is the description:

THE 1st WAVE Took out half a million people.
THE 2nd WAVE Put that number to shame.
THE 3rd WAVE Lasted a little longer. Twelve weeks . . . Four billion dead.
IN THE 4th WAVE, You cannot trust that people are still people.
AND THE 5th WAVE? No one knows. But it's coming.
On a lonely stretch of highway, Cassie runs. Runs from the beings that only look human, who have scattered Earth's last survivors. To stay alone is to stay alive, until she meets Evan Walker. Beguiling and mysterious, Evan may be her only hope. Now Cassie must choose: between trust and despair, between defiance and surrender, between life and death. To give up or to get up.

This book has interest for the young adult market but do not let you put this off, as it is still more than suitable for the adult reader. Yes, ok there is a bit of a connection between Cassie and the mysterious Evan, which some reviewers seemed to view this as the dreaded teenage romance, but truly, this sub plot does not detract at all from the rest of the story line.

The story is told from a few different POV’s, the main being Cassie a teenage girl. I really liked Cassie, she is tough, vulnerable and a believable character in her actions and speech. She survives the first four waves and finds herself alone but determined to find her younger brother, who had been supposedly taken to a safe haven. She travels with guns and a stuffed bear that she has promised to return to him. She knows she is being hunted and when she finds the freshly killed family, she knows that the silencer as she calls him is close by.

The pace of the story is good, and the characters are so well described you are gripped by their plight and you want to know what happens to them.  

Some readers complain about the change in POV’s and say this slows the story down, but to me if anything it makes it more intense. For example, something happens to Cassie, and the next chapter you find yourself with the character Zombie, who is being trained along with other children to be soldiers, to kill the enemy.

This could be quite a grim tale with the description of the different waves especially the third one, the child soldiers, the massacres that happen.   However, these dark parts of the story make it a powerful one, and I was hooked from the first chapter. It is not long to read, and I must admit that as soon as I finished I wanted to jump straight into the next, it’s that sort of writing.

I am glad that I had not read a book about aliens for a while, as otherwise I would not have found this one and would have missed out on a very good book.

8 out of 10

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Book Review - UR

UR – Stephen King

I did not know much about UR until recently. I knew that it was a short story and something I would get round to reading eventually but beyond that I was in the dark. Someone happened to mention the premise the other day and I liked the idea so much that I downloaded the book immediately.

The blurb:

Reeling from a painful break-up, English instructor and avid book lover Wesley Smith is haunted by his ex-girlfriend's parting shot: "Why can't you just read off the computer like everyone else?" He buys an e-book reader out of spite, but soon finds he can use the device to glimpse realities he had never before imagined, discovering literary riches beyond his wildest dreams...and all-too-human tragedies that surpass his most terrible nightmares.

A kindle that not only contains books from alternate dimensions but also contains newspaper clippings from the future – count me in. What a cool premise!

As I mentioned this is only a short story of around 66 pages. It focuses on Wesley Smith, an English professor who has recently found and lost love in the form of a colleague. In a bid to appear more daring and modern, he purchases a Kindle.

In Wesley’s reluctance to buy the Kindle, King captures everything I felt towards the fantastic gadget I can now not live without. From Wesley unwrapping the Kindle to his first foray into the menu screen, King could have been writing about me. It is for this reason alone, I found myself immediately immersed into the story.

Wesley is a likeable character: the self-doubts, the pining over a girl following a recent break-up and the determination to better yourself are all something we can identify with.  King makes you care for the relationship even though we never see any real evidence of it.
It is the concept of the Kindle being more than a reading device that really captures the imagination. Long term fans of King will rejoice in the nods to his other works. The Dark Tower is mentioned here and one has to wonder if this novella was a precursor to King’s excellent time travelling novel, 11/22/63.

As Wesley delves more into the machinations of the Kindle he uncovers more and more shocking events. He confides in a fellow teacher and a student and together they debate what to do with the supernatural gadget.

The plot works well as a novella, with the Kindle revealing an event that will affect Wesley in a big way. As such this forms the focus of the story and resolving it is the only goal. It makes for a tidy conclusion where all threads are nicely wrapped up, however I couldn’t help but think that King could have done more with the concept. Having read the Dark Tower series it was pretty easy to figure out what happened at the end, but I imagine people that have not read that particular series will have quite a few answered questions.
All in all, this is a great little novella, that raises an idea which will stick with you long after you have finished reading it.

My rating: 8.2

Friday, September 5, 2014

Book Review - Divergent

Divergent – Veronica Roth

Recently I bought a Kindle Paperwhite as I wanted to get back to just reading and not be distracted by every other gadget on the Kindle Fire. On the screensaver there is a quote from Haruki Murakami:

“If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you only can think what everyone else is thinking.”

It is a philosophy I happen to prescribe to but it also works both ways. Books like Fifty Shades of Grey, Hunger games, Twilight are wildly popular but generally shunned by the fantasy community as poorly written drivel. I prefer to form my own opinion.
I picked this novel up for that very reason.

The blurb:

In sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior's world, society is divided into five factions -- Abnegation (the selfless), Candor (the honest), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent) -- each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue, in the attempt to form a "perfect society." At the age of sixteen, teens must choose the faction to which they will devote their lives. On her Choosing Day, Beatrice renames herself Tris, rejects her family's group, and chooses another faction. After surviving a brutal initiation, Tris finds romance with a super-hot boy, but also discovers unrest and growing conflict in their seemingly "perfect society." To survive and save those they love, they must use their strengths to uncover the truths about their identities, their families, and the order of their society itself.

First of all, do me a favour and ignore the second part of the blurb above. The “super-hot boy” made me cringe. All I can say is thank goodness I read the book before reading that blurb otherwise I would never have downloaded it. It is entirely misleading and gives the impression the book is entirely a sappy romance.

Secondly, I love it when I am pleasantly surprised by a book. Yes, it could be argued that parts of Divergent are reminiscent of the Hunger Games, but they are very different in tone and style. Divergent handles them with more adult themes in the form of independence, bullying and physical and mental endurance in an accomplished manner. There are no life or death tournaments found in this novel yet the danger still feels very well.

The novel focuses on Tris who was born into the Abnegation faction. I loved the concept behind Veronica Roth’s world. The world has been divided into five factions based on human characteristics. It is believed that selecting the faction that closely resembles your personality will place you with like minded people and reduce crime.

Ludicrous of course, but an interesting idea and the five factions are well selected. Veronica Roth also avoids the inevitable trap of making the factions too stereotypical. Within each, people still retain individual personalities and the factions themselves all display their own merits and flaws so there is not one particular bad one and not one that is overtly good.

Tris is a good character. She discovers early on that she is different from others and we get to see her as an underdog and as a favoured one. Her trials are well thought out and unique. What I like most about her is that she is not your typical young adult heroine where she has no idea just how strong she is. She is perfectly aware of her abilities and her limitations and knows where she can push herself harder and do better.

Unfortunately she does possess the typical teenage romance angst. For once it would be nice to read about a character that is aware of other’s feelings towards them. Why do the teenagers always have to assume the one they are attracted to immediately hates them or are intentionally mean to them?

The other main character is Four. There is nothing surprising about his character but he is still likeable nevertheless. The only real negative I can say about him is that over the course of the novel Veronica Roth changes him from being a mature, mysterious character to just another teenage boy. It is a shame because the Four at the start of the novel is eminently more readable.

The rest of the cast is solid. Tris’ fellow competitors are diverse and the dialogue they share feels natural. Their allegiances also switch in places which makes them more interesting than your average secondary characters.

The plot is good. Tris’ initiation exam makes up the majority of the novel but at the same time a mystery begins to unravel that inevitably comes to the foreground as the novel progresses.

This plot development opens up the world and we begin to see the other factions. It is exciting and lays the ground work for the future novels. The only drawback is that despite some rather harrowing events happening to Tris, she remains relatively unaffected by them. It is unrealistic and spoilt my enjoyment somewhat.
The conclusion is good, if not predictable. There is never a point where I had any doubt as to how the book would end. Overall though, I think it is easy to see why Divergent is as popular as it is and I am looking forward to reading the next instalment in the series.

My rating: 8.4

Monday, September 1, 2014

Book Review - The girl with all the gifts

The girl with all the gifts - M.R. Carey

This book was another impulse buy. The premise sounds good and any zombie movie that gets good reviews is a positive for me.

The blurb:

Melanie is a very special girl. Dr Caldwell calls her 'our little genius'.

Every morning, Melanie waits in her cell to be collected for class. When they come for her, Sergeant keeps his gun pointing at her while two of his people strap her into the wheelchair. She thinks they don't like her. She jokes that she won't bite, but they don't laugh.

Melanie loves school. She loves learning about spelling and sums and the world outside the classroom and the children's cells. She tells her favourite teacher all the things she'll do when she grows up. Melanie doesn't know why this makes Miss Justineau look sad.

Very minor and bloody obvious  spoilers below.

It is rare that a zombie novel can offer anything new. M.R. Carey's book does just that. It is told from a combination of viewpoints but probably most uniquely the main character, Melanie, is a zombie herself. Admittedly this is not an original idea but I've never seen it executed with such care.

Melanie does not know she is a "Hungry," she has spent her whole life chained up. Every day she is taken to lessons tied up and placed with others during the same plight. She does not know any different and has never seen the outside world. As such the only tenderness Melanie experiences are the dispositions of her teachers. Some are strict and perfunctory others her kind and motherly.

Despite her younger years ironically it is Melanie that does the most maturity. She quickly grasps the situation and is the most level headed or of the group. It is this affable behaviour that endears her to the more sceptical characters. The great thing about her though is that she recognises their hostility and never overly strives to challenge it.

It is one of the more motherly teachers who is the other main character. Miss Justineau refuses to see Melanie as a “Hungry” and sees beyond her nature. In a novel filled with characters that distrust Melanie and her ilk Miss Justineau is traditionally the easiest one to like. She is compassionate and trusts her instincts rather than what she is told. This also makes her naive, which adds more dimension to her character.

The other characters are strong if not as well fleshed out. The doctor Caroline is perhaps the strongest, serving as a protagonist with very compelling motives. The plot is serviceable for this type of novel. There is nothing wrong with it but you pretty much know what you are getting in this genre. If I'm honest the paced lagged a little in the centre but it soon picked up again.

The ending is very good. It juggles the balance between tension and realism correctly to not over play the final scenes. All in all, this is a strong post apocalyptic novel with a little more intelligence to it than others in the genre. I'd recommend it.

My rating: 7.9