Thursday, 25 May 2017

Simon Toyne - Sanctus

With a lot going on finding time to read has become quite difficult. Setting aside an hour at bedtime normally results in about three pages of reading before falling asleep – such is the current slow rate of reviews. That said, the quality of books I’m reading at the moment seems to be going up and Simon Toyne’s first book is no exception.

I must admit that it was another slow starter and I seem to have a developing dislike for books which set the scene for the story without using their central character. Sanctus follows the story of Liv Adamsen and she isn’t introduced until page 20. The first 19 pages outline what happened to Brother Samuel, a monk living at the Citadel in Turkey. While there is nothing really wrong with this approach, it made it harder for me to connect with the main characters.

So yeah, it’s a slow builder that takes a while to get going but the story telling and character development is really good throughout. It is a very slow build up but the last 200 or so pages really pick up the pace as the action builds.

I can’t really say a lot about the story as there are lots of twists and turns and it’s definitely worth reading. However there were a few things that I questioned during the 470 page novel.

The first of these occurred on page 120 where a credit card was used to receive a payment. Now I’m pretty sure that a credit card cannot be used in this way. Mind you, I’ve never had a credit card that’s been in credit before and I don’t even know how I would go about even doing it. It also seems a very strange way of organising a payment considering the many other ways there are to make secretive payments. In fact, I’m not even sure why you would draw attention to the payment method.

Also on the very next page, there is a reference to drinking a, ‘bucket of black coffee.’ I don’t know what it is with Americans being stereotypically portrayed in every single book going as drinking coffee all the time and seeing coffee as way to combat tiredness. This isn’t really a criticism of Toyne but a build up of frustration at many different authors.

Also, this isn’t really a criticism but the narrative style changes towards the end to be more like Lee Child where the use of full sentences is abandoned to build the pace. Like I said, not a criticism but I did notice it even though I was aware of its intention. I also think that narrative styles should remain consistent. I didn’t like the Lee Child style at first but at least the novel stuck to what it was doing throughout. I also think it wouldn’t have had that much of an impact on the pace if it had remained in the same style narrative, as evidenced by other books.

Everything about is really minor and totally subjective. Sanctus is a great read and I’m looking forward to getting stuck in to the next two books in the series.

Sanctus by Simon Toyne was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2011. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Chris Kuznetski - Sword of God

The reason for reading this one was simple. It was on the end of the shelf when I came to picking my next book. In general I know what to expect from a Chris Kuznetski, Payne and Jones (Batman and Robin) novel, so much so that I didn’t actually make that many notes on it.

My biggest criticism of his writing is that he foreshadows events far too much. More or less every chapter ends with a massive hint as to what will happen in the next chapter or the chapter after that and it’s a real shame too as his books and very readable and he is a great storyteller and character builder.

Despite my resounding praise for his work there is always nitpicking to be done. On page 67 (at least I’m lead to believe it is page 67 as it is directly after page 66 but doesn’t feature a page number. This is hardly Chris’s fault though as I’m sure he doesn’t do his own paperback printing) there is the use of the word ‘mum’ which I always find strange when written by an American author even when talking about Koreans.

Page 99 has a rather bizarre paragraph about Muhammed and how Muslims and English speaking Muslims deal with saying his name, which is fine... only it has no bearing on the story at all. Other than maybe highlight that Shari is an English speaking Muslim who doesn’t follow the customs but we knew that anyway and if it was such a big deal, why doesn’t anyone else mention it? The narrative isn’t really required and doesn’t add anything to the story.

I didn’t see anything else even worth mentioning until page 316 where another meaningless paragraph is present. The entire section about the Abraj Al Bait Towers feels tacked in just to tell us about the target for the terrorist attack. We knew about the building before this point so it might have been better to have explained the size of the building earlier. Another way to address it would have been during the mission scoping before Payne and Jones attempt to take down the terrorists – that way it would have fit in to the story properly rather than feeling like a total tack-in before the finale.

The last thing I picked up on was the incorrect spelling of character name on page 414 out of 422 where Henderson is replaced by Harrison which made me reread the chapter over again to make sure I didn’t miss anything.

So in summary, Sword of God is a good read with a few minor quibbles and definitely a good book to pick up if you are going on a long journey. However, I couldn’t help but be disappointed with the lack of an actual ancient sword to find. I do enjoy the epic questing, searching for ancient objects and myths.

Sword of God by Chris Kuznetski was published by Penguin Books in 2007. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)

Stephen King - The Wind Through the Keyhole

When I found out another Dark Tower book was released, I was quite excited. I thought it would be great to dive back in to Stephen King’s crazy world of Gunslingers and apocalypse in spite of everything I may have said in my review of the final Dark Tower book. For the most part I was right. It is a tale that can work by itself and also as an extension of the seven-book extravaganza – but only if you make certain exceptions.

The main thing that stood out to me was the weird suedo-English used throughout Wind Through the Keyhole. In the main series you are made aware that there is a high speech and a low speech. The low speech is how we - in the real world - communicate with each other. The problem I found in this book was that King creates his own in-between language without any kind of background explanation as to what the words he uses actually words mean. The crux of this is that at points, it is really hard to understand what on earth people are talking about.

The Wind Through the Keyhole is actually a story within a story... within a story. That’s not actually overtyping, but fact. Roland is telling the usual gang of wanderers a story about his past. While telling the story of his past, he then tells another story in this story... it’s less complicated than I’ve made it sound but it’s still a bit weird. Especially when Roland is supposed to be telling them a story about the storm they are sitting in. Why not just tell them the actual story you told to the boy in the story from your past? It didn’t really make much sense in terms of framing... or over-framing. 

There were a couple of things that made me stop reading to question what was actually going on, more than just the suedo-language, during the 333-page addition to the Dark Tower. The first one occurs on page 132 when one character’s wife and child die. The next three words in the narrative are ‘Ross was gloomy.’ This feels kind of redundant in the face of another character losing everything they supposedly loved and is also ridiculously selfish when put into context. Ross is supposed to be a character we look up to and respect yet he becomes gloomy as he thinks his friend would resort to drink and violence in the face of his wife’s death because he will have to deal with it. Really?

The other thing that stuck with me, and I’m pretty sure this came up in the original series as well, is the description, ‘Turtle that holds up the world,’ which still feels like a Terry Pratchett Discworld rip-off. This could also be a reference to Chinese or Indian mythology but that seems like a giant leap in term of the Dark Tower story.

Other than that though, it is good standalone novel that fits nicely in to the Dark Tower journey. If any more of these come out, I will definitely read them but I would like to see more adventures from the actual journey to the tower rather than stories within stories within stories.

The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 2012. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)


Thursday, 3 March 2016

Lee Child - Killing Floor

This book was recommended to me by a friend who doesn’t read very much so I thought I would pick it up and give it a go. What I’m about to say may seem extremely negative and for the most part it is because there were a lot of things about the book I didn’t like. That said, once I got used to the writing style, it became a fast paced, accessible action-adventure which was difficult to put down. That’s the praise out of the way, let’s talk shittiness.

Now I’ve always been taught that the first page of anything you write is the most important, especially when it comes to novels. Selling yourself to publishers happens in about sixty seconds, maybe less depending on how many manuscripts they have to read. The first page here made me take a second check of what was going on because the last paragraph, which crosses over to the second page, starts with some newspaper bullshit of no relevance to the scene and moves immediately to the action of our main protagonist being arrested. I understand the reasons for this but it made me stop, think and need to re-read and that’s not something I should be doing on the first page of a novel.

As I’ve said above, it took me a while to get used to the writing style, however once I did it reads quite well. The main issues I had were with some of the character decisions made throughout the book and they link back to the writing. I will warn you now that some of things I’m about to say may be considered spoilers but I will try to be as vague as possible.

As early as page 39, I started to raise my eyebrows at some of the stuff that was going on. Apparently the Chief of Police sees Reacher at the crime scene at midnight. Not one person turns around and asks what the Chief of Police was doing there. Just a routine stroll around the out-of-town warehouse where someone was murdered as the exact same time?? This is explained later on as to why he thinks to saw Reacher there but that just poses more questions than answers. This carries on for the next twenty pages and not even the first-person narrator questions why the police chief is there. Maybe I’ve read/watched too many deductive programs but it would have been the first question on my list.

On page 80 when Reacher and Hubble turn up at the prison, the warden asks which one of the two of them is Hubble... but doesn’t address Reacher at all. This doesn’t make any sense. Either you are checking you have both of the right people or you know both of them. Why only ask one of them? Again, there is a clear reason for this but it doesn’t make sense to do it in the context it is done unless the Warden’s character is really stupid but if that’s the case, Reacher isn’t he so should have sensed something was up. The intelligence of Reacher is established early on when he works out that Finley is an ex-smoking divorcee just by looking at him.

In fact, a lot of the other points I’ve made about the narrative decisions relate to Reacher’s early show of observation and deduction. Apparently, it’s a super power that needs to re-charge because he didn’t work out that someone at the police station didn’t run the victim’s prints and was therefore in on the murder; he didn’t question the suspicious death of the previous investigator even though the evidence made me think it was murder (and I was right); he didn’t work out until a few days after the event, that the white supremacists who tried to kill him should have been trying to kill Hubble; he doesn’t think that taking a car from a house would alert anyone watching the house that he had been back there; he drives for 50 miles further than his petrol tank will allow him to go but after pointing this out, he isn’t surprised by this and doesn’t even do a fuel check after stopping.
It’s lucky though because his super powers come back in to play at the end as he manages to track down Hubble by making a fuck load of ridiculous assumptions about his fake name and location that, of course, are right on the money. Looking at this, it actually seems like his deductive brilliance is actually out of character.

On the subject of Reacher, he is the a-typical male character. He objectifies the one woman in the town who is actually attractive (according to the narrative anyway) and of course, she ends up fancying him too. It’s all very stereotypical.

So there you go, Killer Floor is a novel with some narrative decisions that are more puzzling that the decision to cast Tom Cruise as the 6-foot tall blonde guy. As I said though, none of that takes away from the fact that it’s a very readable book and there are some clever bits in there that make it worth reading.

Killing Floor by Lee Child was published by Bantam Press in 1998. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Chris Kuznetski - The Sign of the Cross

After making my way through the Conqueror series I was in a place for some much needed fun. I had previously read one of Chris Kuznetski’s books and Sign of the Cross just happened to be on the end of my bookshelf. This was good because, I thoroughly enjoyed the book and it was definitely the much needed entertainment I was looking for.

The story follows Kuznetski’s heroes, Payne and Jones, as they are tasked with tracking down a supposedly dangerous criminal in Europe. Meanwhile some other guys are re-enacting the Crucifixion of Christ using handpicked individuals as Christ’s replacement. As you can expect, these storylines cross paths in a fast paced, action packed and generally well crafted story.

A lot of what I’m about to say goes against what I’ve said above but I’m slowly coming round to believing that decent fiction cannot be completely well written without being horrendously boring. Entertaining fiction also appears to attract a certain type of pompous dickhead who will criticise someone’s choice of fiction, but I’ll get more into that one later.

Generally speaking, there are few mistakes in the 606 page text and only a few that were worth stopping for. One such issue occurred in the form of where you capitalise ‘dad.’ ‘My dad’ is not capitalised but ‘Dad,’ where Dad takes the place of a name, is a proper noun, and is thus capitalised... but not in Sign of the Cross. There are also a few duplicated words sprinkled around the text but that’s about all I picked up on that broke the flow of the story.

Another interesting one is when one of the wholly English characters used the term ‘mom.’ There is no way an English person would use the Americanism for Mum. Ever.

Moving on to the writing choices; the first one, and I may have mentioned this is my review of The Secret Crown, is that the police are labelled as incompetent from the outset. This one is surprising in that the police rock up at a murder site and immediately contaminate the scene. Like there is any way that would happen in a developed European city. The police in Africa were a lot better prepared when their murder happened and acted a lot more in line with what you would expect.

Another thing that struck me was the similarities between Jonathan Payne and Batman. His company is called Payne Industries. He has loads of money which allows him to run his own detective agency and travel the world at a whim. Both his parents are dead. And he is extremely resourceful. Jonathan Payne is Bruce Wayne.

Perspective is quite often a tricky thing and I’m beginning to wonder if what I was told about its use is actually true. In this book I was perplexed that when we were looking from Nick Dial’s perspective, when he is on a phone call we are able to see the other guy’s reacting in terms of grinning, raised eyebrows, the works. Either Nick Dial has an amazing sixth sense or there are perspectives flying around all over the place.

Geography is another subject that takes a hit. The first one is one that I cannot understand. I’m sure there is a good reason for this but instead of using the world renowned Oxford or Cambridge universities for a setting in Britain, Chris decides to create Dover University, one of the oldest, most reputable and fictitious universities in England.

Italy also doesn’t make a lot of sense. Payne and Jones are able to travel vast distances really quickly, probably on the premise that they have a fast car. However, a fast car does not account for the treacherous Italian country roads. 60 miles only translates to 60 minutes if you are driving at exactly 60 mph the whole way, which is of course impossible to do on winding roads with blind corners that will of course be filled with lorries and coaches, especially as it’s running to a tourist destination.

Which brings me on nicely to my last subject. Everywhere that Payne and Jones go there seems to be conveniently placed Americans to help them with whatever situation they find themselves in, especially when they are in a country where neither of them know the language.

Despite all of these issues as I said at the beginning, it is an enjoyable book that was hard to put down, mainly due to the strength of the story. I will be reading more of his books in due course. However, some people don’t feel the same way. While I’ve mentioned above that Chris Kuznetski fictionalised Dover University, some members of the literary community took this to heart and while focussing on this one detail, labelled the book ‘atrocious garbage.’ I guess some people make my reviews look kind!

The Sign of the Cross by Chris Kuznetski was published by Penguin in 2007. RRP £6.99 (Paperback)

Conn Iggulden - Conqueror

I’ve finally completed this five book slog and I must admit, it took me a lot longer that I would have liked. Based on how quickly I’ve finished my next book, I think it says something about my enjoyment of this series. I did think that Conqueror was the best book in the series in terms of writing however it suffers from the same ongoing issues that plagued the previous books in the series.

I’m not going to dwell too much on this one as, like I said, it’s the best one and it’s probably just my taste that led me to taking so long to finish it.

Anyway onto the stuff I didn’t like. The way Conn Iggulden paints his characters is rather confusing. In the end of the last book, Batu was portrayed as an asshole who believed he was more entitled to lead despite his questionable heritage. However, at the start of this book, Guyuk is immediately made out to be an absolute cunt and Batu is the knight in shining armour who needs to stop Guyuk’s debaucherous leadership of the Mongol empire.

My problem with this is that the best part of writing historical fiction is surely that you can use your own creative whims to fill the gaps between the stuff that is officially documented. So why do we start here and not visit slightly earlier to watch Guyuk’s descent into depravity? Not only would it have made these early scenes easier to understand but it would have made for some interesting reading.

There is the other matter of the ever present, ‘here is that character I forgot about. But he/she is important so here is their funeral.’ This book goes one further by getting rid of Yao Shu by having him leave in one paragraph, and in the past tense, without even a word to anyone despite being ever-present throughout the series. It’s a strange choice because, once again, the character relationships are not something that is overly documented in history. It’s more the events, so I would have thought there would have been more focus on the characters than the events.

The above issues are more writing choices that I didn’t understand but there were a few mistakes that stood out. At one point, one of the Mongol character’s names is spelt incorrectly and towards the end of the book, Hulegu is referred to as Kublai’s older brother, which is careless prose, especially when you are dealing with three brothers at the same time.

And that’s pretty much it. The series has been more enjoyable than it probably comes across in these reviews but I feel I am due a long break from Iggulden and will be exploring different writers over the coming months, as well as revisiting some of my favourites.

Conqueror by Conn Iggulden was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2011. RRP £8.99 (Paperback)

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Conn Iggulden - Empire of Silver

This is forth book in the five book epic that I’ve managed to drag out for far too long, mainly due to the fact that I simply could not get into the book. More on that later, but first – the overview.

In the aftermath of Ghengis Khan’s death, his son Ogedai, is elected to lead over his older brother Chagatai. Ghengis has built a reputation of destroying enemies and not having a home city so, in full respect of his father, Ogedai abandon’s Genghis’s principles and builds a fuck-off massive city in the middle of their homeland. Legend.

The remainder of the story follows Tsubodai as he tries to conquer the entire world while Ogedai sits on his ass at home with a heart condition after his younger, stronger, better looking, more sensible brother, sacrifices himself because some Chinese doctor said it would fix Ogedai. At this point, I was like, what a selfish twat, but I suppose you cannot argue with history.

While the story line follows the historical characters and is loosely based on the events as we know them, is takes bravery to write about a bunch of thugs who went around invading everywhere for no real reason and portraying them as the good guys. Despite this, Iggulden still tries to; albeit very weakly. There is one part where Tsubodai prevents a Russian woman from being raped, not because he is merciful, but simply to prove a point. She will inevitably die a more painful death freezing in the cold after her home was burnt to the ground, but there you go. The lesser of two evils, right?

Compared to the other books that precede Empire of Silver, the first hundred pages or so are actually pretty good. I didn’t notice any writing problems and the writing was well paced. I didn’t even realise how much of the book I had read and that is exactly how it should be. This was also the same for the last 150 pages or so, but there was a big chunk in the middle of the 428 page book that destroyed the pace and felt like a return to the last book in terms of style. There is not really any other word for it but boring. I found myself bored, only reading twenty pages at a time before finding something else to do, including falling asleep.

There are also a couple of new writing errors to pick on. On page 121 the use of punctuation and sentence structure leads to a watermill feeling astonishment at workers wearing soft slippers. There is language choice on page 255, where Tsubodai’s senses are offended twice in the same page where this expression has never been previously used. The writing should not draw my attention away from the story.

There are also the usual inconsequential spelling errors littered throughout. A ‘back’ instead of ‘black’ here, and some misplaced punctuation there, but my main issue with the book is the characters.

Number 1: Yao Shu. The horniest Bhuddist in the East. It’s not so much that his internal monologues about secretly wanting to pork every Mongol wife going wind me up, but more his character change. He wants to pork Sorthatani until the cows come home, but as soon as she gets a sniff of some power, he whips out his hate guns and the horniness goes away. The bit I do not understand is that angry sex with someone you don’t like can be even more satisfying than normal sex with the same person. Use the anger Yao Shu!

Number 2:  Batu. He is just a twat. He is the unacknowledged son of Jochi who, let’s face it, was never really confirmed as Genghis’s son in the first place and for the second half of the book walks around as the self proclaimed Prince of the Nation. Or at least proclaimed by the narrative, anyway. In another show of how big his balls are, he gets annoyed when he challenged Tsubodai’s authority and gets bitch slapped for it. After being raised by the Khan from the gutter, I would expect to see some respect, rather than a sense of entitlement.

Number 3:  Conn Iggulden’s failure to acknowledge a character’s existence unless he feels like it. It happened with Temulun in the last book, where he only wrote her back in to rape and kill her and he does it again here with Genghis’ illusive mother Hoelun. I was thinking to myself when Kachiun died (sorry, spoiler alert, the old man dies) that I’m sure the mother was still popping around somewhere, but we are simply told that she died at some point in the past. I don’t know what she did to piss off the author, but it must have been bad to be written off in such a way, especially when she was a key player to the survival of four of the series’ main characters in the first book and is effectively the mother of the nation.

The historical notes at the end are often a good source for reference material and I always read them out of interest despite them not forming part of the story. I’m glad I did this time because there are some humdingers in there.

According to the notes, Ogedai’s son, Kaidu, was present in at the battles in Hungary but is omitted for fear of introducing too many characters. This would probably explain why Iggulden didn’t focus on Hoelun and Temulun but I feel this is a kick in the teeth. There isn’t a fantastical overload of information in this series as it is, so to remove a piece of history because I’m too stupid to follow it is a very weak justification and also a tad insulting.

Iggulden also omits one of the most famous battles in Mongol history with another weak justification. I don’t really know why. With all the bullshit in the middle of the book, I could have done with some of the more well-executed battle scenes from the end. In fact, I almost feel robbed, especially when writing these scenes appear to be the author’s main strength.

There is one more book in the series and after that, I will be done with Conn Iggulden. After investing in the last four, I can’t stop now. Hopefully the final book offers a thilling finale that will make reading the whole series worthwhile.

Empire of Silver by Conn Iggulden was published by HarperCollinsPublishers in 2010. RRP £7.99 (Paperback)