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Monday, 5 September 2016

Book review: Carte Blanche

It's been a long time since I read any of the newer official James Bond novels, written by a variety of novelists commissioned by the Ian Fleming estate; not since Sebastian Faulks' effort, of which I don't really remember the actual novel much, but do remember his afterword in which he says he's basically too good to be writing James Bond books, but it's all right 'cause he likes doing pastiche and just farted this one out on his coffee break (IIRC it showed.) That's probably what's put me off the other official novels, but as with most things it was some of them coming up cheap on kindle that made me give them another go. And Jeffery "two ways to spell Jeffrey weren't enough for me" Deaver does at least seem to have been flattered to be asked rather than mildly offended.

Monday, 25 July 2016

Book review: The Complete Sherlock Holmes vol.3

As I like to do every year or two, I've gone back to Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories in my collection of the complete works; Volume 3 includes one collection of short stories and the final full-length novel: The Return of Sherlock Holmes starts with "The Adventure of the Empty House," which as the title of the collection suggests sees Holmes return from the "dead" in a typically low-key way, and explain how he faked his own death so he could get rid of Moriarty's crime ring while they thought he was safely out of the way. I do generally enjoy the short stories more than the novels, and this is quite a good little collection of them, with a couple of grisly cases and one or two I'm not sure I've actually read before. I did like moments in these like a client asking Holmes and Watson if he can have a glass of milk and a biscuit to calm his nerves, or the couple of times where Holmes to all intents and purposes tells Watson not to be so racist.

Holmes' supposed death must have got Conan Doyle's audience really interested in the shady Professor Moriarty as well, because he crops up a lot more after his own death than he ever did before it, so despite having revived Holmes a lot of stories go back to before the Reichenbach Falls: The final novel The Valley of Fear feels like an instance of Moriarty being crowbarred into an unrelated story, which is enjoyable enough but does go back to the clunky storytelling device of A Study in Scarlet - Holmes solving the mystery in the first half of the novel with information the reader doesn't have, then a second half flashing back to events in America that led up to the crime. It's pulled off better here than in the debut novel - the flashback itself is more cleverly constructed - but it still feels like a bit of a cheat of a narrative device.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Book review: Witches of Lychford

Paul Cornell's author bio mentions the many different media he's written (and won awards) for, including TV and a couple of the most popular episodes of the revived Doctor Who (but nothing for some years now.) It does make me wonder if Witches of Lychford wasn't originally envisaged as a book, because by its end it does feel like you've just watched the pilot for a supernatural TV show. It's not just the fact that it mostly establishes a setting and characters for further stories - and there is already another book in the series - but also the fact that it's so short. It basically has time to introduce its central mismatched trio - a witch, a vicar and an atheist-turned-occultist - and its location of Lychford, a village that's a weak spot between supernatural dimensions. The three women get to form an uneasy alliance and fight off their first challenge, the proposal of a supermarket whose building would destroy the occult protections against invasion from other realms. It's certainly mainly setup for "more adventures to come..." and it's, unsurprisingly, well-written with well-drawn characters, so I will look out for those further adventures, but much as I like a quick read I hope we get the chance for something a bit more intricate than a novella next time.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Book review: The Boy Who Stole From The Dead

I enjoyed The Boy From Reactor 4 enough to give Orest Stelmach's follow-up a chance - The Boy Who Stole From The Dead is the second of his Nadia Tesla series, in which the Ukrainian-American heroine is now the legal guardian of teenage hockey player Bobby, who's actually her illegal immigrant cousin from Chernobyl. This time Bobby is accused of murder, and her attempts to clear his name without revealing his true identity see Nadia returning to Ukraine again. The story's resolution takes a much more extreme turn than I was expecting but Stelmach just about pulls it off, while setting up an even bigger conspiracy for the third in what now seems to be a trilogy.

Monday, 6 June 2016

Book review: All My Friends are Superheroes

A very quick word about All My Friends are Superheroes because it's a very short book. Andrew Kaufman's novella is a little fable about people defining themselves by a single personality trait, framed in a love story in which the narrator's superhero wife has been hypnotized into not being able to see him; he has until the end of a flight to Toronto to make himself visible again before she forgets him entirely. It's a bit self-consciously quirky but likeable all the same.

Thursday, 2 June 2016

Book review: The New Watch

Somewhere in the blurb for Sergei Lukyanenko's The New Watch I'm sure I saw it described as the final book in the Night Watch pentalogy; I think that makes it the third consecutive "final book in the series," following the "final book in the trilogy" and the "sequel to the trilogy." So I'm not too surprised to see that yes, a sixth novel is due in September.

Still, I enjoy Lukyanenko's supernatural thrillers about the Others, the sub-species of humans with magical abilities split into Dark and Light categories with an uneasy truce that states that each action made by one side means the other is allowed to do something of equal but opposite influence. In The New Watch, the Light magician Anton discovers a boy with prophetic powers, something which opens up a whole new (and at times, unnecessarily complicated) area of the books' mythology as there are unbreakable rules surrounding the first, biggest prophecy any Prophet makes, except it turns out nobody's actually sure what they are. It's a bit obviously milking a concept that was originally meant to run a lot shorter, but at the same time I still like the way the books have a three-act structure in which seemingly unrelated events build up to a sudden climax.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Book review: Haterz

As the internet makes people feel free to express ever more extreme opinions about each other, extreme ways might be needed to police their behaviour. The solution in James Goss' comedy-thriller Haterz takes no prisoners - the narrator is a serial killer targeting trolls and anyone else who makes the internet a worse place. He starts more or less by accident, slipping peanuts to the allergic girlfriend of his friend, who uses Facebook to passive-aggressively make people's lives a misery. But it catches the attention of a mysterious conspiracy he calls The Killuminati, who finance him to get rid of trolls who threaten violence to random women, charity scammers and teenage pop fans who try to bully others into suicide.

I really enjoyed Haterz, which doesn't stick just to black comedy but also sees the narrator get more subtle in his revenge on characters who bear a certain resemblance to real people: A self-pitying columnist who lives in the country, slagging off her neighbours and ex-husband in her articles, gets her comeuppance when he turns her into a nice person, thereby ruining her career. It does look for a while as if the story's impetus is running out, but Goss salvages it with a couple of twists about who's been behind his mysterious funders.

Monday, 9 May 2016

Book review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

Something of a prequel to George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms takes place in his fictional world of Westeros about 100 years before the events of A Game of Thrones, and collects three novellas Martin had previously published separately about Dunk and Egg. The former is a hedge knight - a wandering knight who doesn't owe allegiance to any particular house or lord - and the latter his 11-year-old squire, but secretly a prince of the ruling Targaryen family. Compared to the intrigues of the main novels these prequels are pretty straightforward - Dunk earns his spurs at a tournament, helps an elderly knight fend off his aggressive neighbour, and then gets caught up in a political plot at another tournament - and not quite as full of gratuitous sex and violence (I mean, loads of people die, several horses come to a sticky end and someone's brains fall out, but I did say this was in comparison to A Song of Ice and Fire.) It's kind of like a violent fairytale, enjoyable but Martin's claim in the epilogue that many more Dunk and Egg stories will follow might be a bit optimistic, given the speed at which he writes.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Book review: Time of Death

This year's Thorne thriller by Mark Billingham sees Tom Thorne and his partner Helen go on holiday; but instead of the old cliché about a detective going on holiday and stumbling across a crime, Thorne and Helen deliberately interrupt theirs to seek one out, when they hear of a serial killer of teenage girls in the Warwickshire town where she grew up. Specifically, the prime suspect is the husband of one of Helen's old school friends, so they go to lend some support - although why exactly she suddenly feels so responsible for someone she hasn't spoken to since she left town is one of the novel's mysteries.

The other one is who the real killer is, because Thorne becomes convinced the police have the wrong man - as the title suggests, there's something about the Time of Death that bugs him. So we're back to a bit more of a conventional detective story although this time the police are far from welcoming Thorne's help. I like how we've now got to the stage where Billingham focuses almost as much on Helen - whom he introduced in her own story a few years ago before bringing her to the main series - as he does on Thorne, giving the story two different points of view. And this one has a clock-ticking dénouement that had me really anxious reading it.

Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Book review: 1606

In a brief change from the fiction I usually read, another of James Shapiro's histories of the events that influenced Shakespeare's writing. After 1599, we get 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, with the plays that premiered that year being King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. There's lots of outside elements big and small that seem to be reflected in those plays but inevitably most of them come back to the Gunpowder Plot of the previous year. I knew that Macbeth carried a lot of echoes of that, but Shapiro also finds possible links in King Lear, which would probably have been written by November 1605, but might have had amendments before it reached the stage, acknowledging some of the current events everyone was paranoid about at the time (the anonymous letter Edmund plants to frame Edgar might have given people flashbacks to one that revealed the plot to Parliament in time for it to be stopped.) The two very different versions of Lear in quarto and folio form are also discussed, changes which might have been made as the parameters of what was and wasn't appropriate to be staged changed.

There's also a little-known story of an alleged assassination of James I, a rumour that spread with amazing speed throughout the country and sounds uncannily like the many false celebrity death rumours that make the rounds nowadays. Overall I found much interesting stuff here, especially since, as Shapiro points out in the opening, people seem less interested in exploring Shakespeare as a Jacobean playwright despite the fact that his company had a much closer relationship with James than with his predecessor.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Book review: The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell's (not that one) The Bone Clocks has some similarities to his most famous book Cloud Atlas, although it's got a more linear structure than the Russian doll format of that novel, and its story takes place over a single lifetime: That of Holly Sykes, who narrates the first segment as a teenager in the 1980s, and the final one as a grandmother in the 2040s. In between we have multiple other narrators, all of whom have some connection to Holly, whether it be a significant one or fleeting.

As well as following a human life from a distance, The Bone Clocks also has a supernatural element that reveals itself more and more as the story goes on: Holly is caught in the middle of a centuries-old war between two species of immortals, one group nicknamed Carnivores, who kill to maintain their own eternal youth, and the other calling themselves Horologists, who are eternally reincarnated while remembering all their previous lives, and who are determined to wipe out the murderous Carnivores.

It may have taken me a while but this was probably my favourite Mitchell book since Cloud Atlas, and it also seems to take place in the same universe as all his other books, including his dire warnings about a post-industrial future (assuming the penultimate Cloud Atlas segment in a high-tech future could have been taking place only in China, while the rest of the world succumbed to the events of The Bone Clocks.) I think strict literary fiction fans might be a bit nonplussed at how the gentle suggestions of the supernatural turn into full-on fantasy for the 2020s part of the story, but for me the personal stories were interesting (even when some of the narrators are far from sympathetic) and the fantasy element effectively blended into the more naturalistic framework.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Book review: All She Wants

As something of a break from the various urban fantasies I've been reading lately (and because it was discounted on Kindle, my usual reason for trying anything I hadn't already planned on buying,) I thought I'd give Jonathan Harvey's venture into comic novels a go. Harvey is course the playwright best known for Beautiful Thing, although for the last several years his day job has been as head writer on Coronation Street. And that informs the story of All She Wants, about a soap star whose career goes on the skids early on in the book, before we flash back to her earlier life in which all she ever wanted was to star in the Liverpool-set soap filmed near where she grew up. It's funny, although its story is every bit as soapy and random as those its lead character has to act in, and the attempt to add a more serious side with a wife-beating storyline feels a bit glib in the circumstances.

Monday, 25 January 2016

Book review: London Falling

Paul Cornell is another Doctor Who writer to launch a book series about a section of the Metropolitan Police dealing with the supernatural; presumably Ben Aaronovitch hasn't taken it as encroaching on his territory since he provides the cover quote. And London Falling suggests a different enough approach that it can happily enough coexist with the Rivers of London series - there's a bit of a darker, nastier edge to this book that's closer to the Mike Carey Felix Castor books that I still miss.

Here the team is a four-strong one that comes together largely by accident when a long-running undercover operation comes to an abrupt end, the crime boss they've spent years trying to take down dying suddenly in a supernatural (and very grisly) way. While investigating the death the head of the operation, two undercover officers and an intelligence analyst end up acquiring, for reasons they still haven't found out by the end of the first book, psychic powers that allow them to see into the supernatural underside of London.

It took me a while to get used to the way Cornell jumps between his four leads as point-of-view characters every couple of pages, but the story (featuring a curse on anyone who scores too many goals against West Ham) builds well, and kept me keen to go back to it. But it's probably the fact that Cornell manages at least two HUGE moments of pulling the rug out from under the reader that'll ensure me checking out the rest of the series.

Saturday, 9 January 2016

Book review: Snow Blind

I really should try to remember, when I'm browsing books at various times of the year, that I like to have a ghost story (or collection of them) to read over Christmas. As it happens this year I already had one waiting on my Kindle so Christopher Golden's Snow Blind it was. The novel proved just right for the job, not exactly a traditional ghost story but with just about the right balance of darkness and hope.

It's set in a New England town that's used to snowstorms every winter but two, twelve years apart, prove particularly deadly. The first few chapters take place during the first storm, which claims a couple of dozen lives. Most of the book takes place twelve years later though, when the approaching second storm also brings with it some of the people who died in the first. There's a traditional ghost but most of them possess the body of someone living, with a warning that the storm contains an evil supernatural force, the real reason for the high casualty rate.

I thought the book nicely set up the various groups of characters, each of whom loses someone in the first storm only to have them come back in the second, with not all the returnees necessarily being welcome visitors. So there's plenty of people to feel invested in as they try to stay safe from the ice creatures, and maybe even save their loved ones' ghosts from their limbo state.

Monday, 4 January 2016

Headlong

The year is 5343 but Christmas street decorations are still those big bulbs made up of lots of little white lights, that turn up in high streets looking slightly tattier every year. Also, there's Christmas tree bulbs instead of planets in the opening credits NOW LET US NEVER SPEAK OF THIS AGAIN.

"The Husbands of River Song" by Steven Moffat, directed by Douglas Mackinnon.Spoilers after the cut.

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Book review: The Basic Eight

Daniel Handler is better known as children's author Lemony Snicket, but has also published a few books under his own name. Before the Series of Unfortunate Events came his 1995 debut novel The Basic Eight, whose story is a bit of a high school transposition of The Secret History and Fight Club. It takes the form of a journal by San Francisco high school senior Flannery Culp, who's gone back to re-edit it for publication from the prison cell or mental hospital room she's ended up in a year or so later. So it's made clear from the start that she and the other members of the Basic Eight, a pretentious clique, will end the story with murder, and she even lets us know in advance who the victim will be. The unlikeable, delusional narrator device extends to Flannery pointing out to the reader when she's using literary devices like foreshadowing, dramatic irony and pathetic fallacy, and ending each chapter with a list of discussion topics and useful vocabulary. I found it generally enjoyable, although the plot feels well-trodden and Handler's use of barely-disguised real names for public figures (post-notoriety, Flannery's nemesis is talk show host Winnie Moprah, and she'll be played by actress Rinona Wider in the TV movie) was a bit twee for me.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Book review: Career of Evil

Writing under a pseudonym must do wonders for J.K. Rowling's writer's block, because unlike the big gaps we used to get between Harry Potter books, the Cormoran Strike crime novels she writes as Robert Galbraith have been coming out pretty regularly. The series is in part Rowling's way of talking about the weirdness of fame, and where the first two books saw the private detective solve cases involving famous people, in Career of Evil it's his own fame thanks to those cases that kicks everything off: A serial killer with a Blue Öyster Cult fixation has made it very clear he or she has a particular beef with Strike, who thinks his recent appearances in the papers have stirred up someone from his past with a grudge. And since his past was in the military police, he can come up with a decent shortlist of suspects just off the top off his head.

The book opens with Strike's assistant Robin receiving a severed leg as a special delivery, but despite early word being that this was the goriest of the novels so far, I'm not sure it quite overtakes The Silkworm's ritual eviscerations. The creepiest element is probably Robin delving into the world of acrotomophilia, investigating people either attracted to amputees or, particularly in this case, people who want to have their own limbs amputated. Having lost a leg in the Middle East, Strike is unsurprisingly unsympathetic, particularly to a very odd couple they meet during their investigation. Despite a fairly small pool of suspects this is another good mystery with a few red herrings and perilous moments - this being someone happy to kill off dozens of characters in a children's series, you can certainly imagine Rowling wouldn't hesitate to get rid of one of her popular leads in a grisly adult series.

Monday, 7 December 2015

Raven? See, moan.

So after Doctor Who Series 9's only single-part story we go into a concluding three-parter, but a stealth one, a bit like "Utopia" was a stealth way to reintroduce the Master. In this case it's the Time Lords who are reintroduced, and they're grumpy about... something, because the Time Lords are always grumpy about something.

"Face the Raven" / "Heaven Sent" / "Hell Bent" by Sarah Dollard and Steven Moffat, directed by Justin Molotnikov and Rachel Talalay. Spoilers after the cut.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Evil dust or something

I've got so used to this series of Doctor Who being made up of two-parters I wasn't really prepared for this week's to be a standalone. I'm still not convinced next week's apparently unrelated episode won't turn out to be some sort of sequel after all.

"Sleep No More" by Mark Gatiss, directed by Justin Molotnikov. Spoilers after the cut.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Book review: Lamentation

C.J. Sansom's Lamentation is the latest Shardlake novel, and as becomes quickly apparent the last one to take place during the reign of Henry VIII - it's obvious to everyone that the king has months left to live at best, but nobody can mention this because to do so is treason. Of course most things seem to be treason, or heresy, in the last year of Henry's life: These books have always really backed up the idea that England has never come closer to Stalinist Russia than during Tudor times, and it's a particularly heavy atmosphere in the sixth book. Having changed the official religion for his own ends, with his death approaching Henry seems to be trying to hone in on what his actual beliefs are. To have any religious beliefs other than the king's is treason, but with no clue what the king's beliefs will be from one day to the next anyone toeing the party line one day could find themselves burned at the stake the next day for espousing the exact same tenets - Shardlake himself is regularly being threatened with a heresy accusation by anyone with the slightest grudge against him.

There's a number of story threads going on but the main one is based around a real-life book written by Queen Catherine Parr, The Lamentation of a Sinner, a proclamation of faith the like of which a lot of people wrote at the time. In reality it was published after Henry's death, in the novel the manuscript has been stolen at a time when its contents could have been used against her. The storyline is interesting but as usual what I most enjoy about the novels is the atmosphere of the time, which at this point has become even more threatening than before.