Book Review: Ten Plus One by Ed McBain

It’s been a while since I visited the officers of the 87th Precinct, but I’m glad I did as this book is easily one of my favourites of the series so far.

mcbain tenplusone

On a sunny day a businessman is gunned down in the middle of the street, and Detectives Carella and Meyer have a new case. When a second body drops, followed quickly by a third the detectives have to face the fact that the killings could be random. Unless they can discover some kind of connection between the quickly growing list of victims.

When they finally uncover the link the case is more baffling, why are people being killed because of a decade old connection, and with no apparent reason? Slowly, Carella and Meyer start to make progress, partly because the list of suspects is dwindling, and partly through good old fashioned police work. Can they find the killer before all the names are crossed off their list? Or before only one remains, at least?

I loved this book, which features a compelling mystery at the centre, which keeps the reader engaged and unfolds in a well paced, entertaining manner.

As ever, the strongest asset is McBain’s writing which manages to strike a variety of tones across the novel. There are funny moments, particularly in the fast paced, bantering dialogue of the detectives and the wry, sardonic tone of some of the narration. But there are other moments where the writing is almost poetic before shifting to cold, grim realism.

It’s also elevated by the fact that McBain fleshes out all the characters, from the detectives and the victims all the way through to the witnesses and minor figures. There’s one sequence where the cops talk to the son of a victim, and it’s genuinely moving, the way that McBain quickly, but fully, captures the sense of a man shattered by grief.

This book serves as an example of all the things that the 87th Precinct series does so well, and rises right to the top of the pile.

Verdict: A wonderfully written yarn that shows McBain at his best. One of the best instalments so far. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Book Review: The Trinity by Chris Philbrook

This is the seventh and penultimate instalment in Philbrook’s Adrian’s Undead Diary series, which follows our narrator as he attempts to survive after the dead rise. Unlike a lot of zombie stories, Philbrook has added a supernatural element to proceedings, with Adrian Ring, the ex-marine who keeps a journal being one of the key players in deciding whether mankind will be saved or not. His actions, along with the other two members of the trinity will be judged and mankind’s fate depends on how they do.

It’s been a while since I read book six in the series, so at the start I couldn’t quite remember where this picks up the story. Thankfully, Adrian’s diaries quickly brought me back up to speed. We see Adrian have to deal with a rival group of hostile survivors, and also with more weirdness.

philbrook trinity

The book fills in the blanks and adds more clues as to where all this is headed, but for the large part Adrian is still merely trying to survive and keep his people safe. His diary entries are still filled with profanity and dumb jokes, but there’s something endearing about this regular guy forced into a position of responsibility and command due to strange events.

Philbrook ties the different story strands together quite well, and ensures the plot moves along nicely. There are new threats and twists along the way and the introduction of new problems and characters. There’s also a growing sense that as the pieces in the game gather that the endgame is due to start soon. What this final judgement will be is still a mystery at this point, but the final part of this series is high on my “to read” list now.

The action is quick and the diary entry continues to be a handy tool for building tension, leaving the reader wondering what has gone down when there are lengthy gaps between entries and leaving threads hanging. Adrian’s conversational tone ensures that it remains entertaining and engaging, and the humour undercuts some of the more grim moments.

I was hooked throughout and loved that seven books in this story still moves in new directions I didn’t see coming, and the supernatural side of the story adds more mystery to the novel. This whole series has been hugely enjoyable and I hope the ending keeps the streak going.

Verdict: Philbrook develops the world he’s created and there are some interesting twists and turns along the way. His vulgar narrator continues to be a likeable character, and easy to sympathise with. It builds the suspense and tension well, and the sense of the approaching ending ensured that I ploughed through this quickly, eager to see where this is all going. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: 14 by Peter Clines

I’ve really enjoyed Peter Clines’ “Ex” books, which pit a group of superheroes against the hordes of the undead in a hugely entertaining and inventive series. I knew he’d written a few other books, and after some recommendations on Twitter, I decided to check this one out.

I may have found my favourite fiction book of the year.

clines 14

Nate Tucker works a dull data entry job and needs to find a new place to live in Los Angeles. A co-worker recommends he check out the Kavach Building, an old apartment block with cheap rents. Nate moves in and soon discovers the building has plenty of odd quirks and general weirdness. Neighbour Veek soon introduces him to even more mysteries, and they decide to snoop around and see if they can discover the building’s secrets.

What they discover is far more bizarre than what they suspected and could threaten all of mankind. And they’re not the only ones interested in the building. Will they be able to find the truth and keep the world safe? Or will the dark forces known only as The Family find what they seek and cause chaos?

What I loved about this book was that it genuinely surprised me, as the zombie books I’ve read by Clines have been fairly light, with a couple of dark moments. This, however, is a very different proposition, with a great sense of building tension and creepiness. Clines does a great job of slowly building the weirdness of the building, adding to it piece by piece and creating a sense that something bigger is going on.

Some of the revelations are genuinely surprising, and the final reveal is brilliantly handled. There is one twist that is easy to spot, but even that doesn’t stop this from being one of those great books that absorbs you completely, making you reluctant to put it down and keeping you utterly hooked as the plot unfolds.

I really enjoyed it, Clines balances humour in the dialogue and the regular everyday stuff with the growing sense of unease. It’s marvellously written and I loved every page, keen to get to the end but regretting that there wasn’t more. Confirms that Clines is a talented and smart writer, and I’m definitely going to check out even more of his stuff.

Verdict: A gripping, suspenseful science fiction thriller which ratchets up the tension and oddities nicely, and goes in interesting directions. Clines’ dialogue is great as is his ability to keep the reader fascinated. 9/10. 

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: I’m Sorry, I Love You: A History of Professional Wrestling by Jim Smallman

Jim Smallman explains his choice of title near the start of this book, explaining that he chose the words delivered by Shawn Michaels to Ric Flair at WrestleMania XXIV, not only for their importance in the world of wrestling, but because they serve as his own words for a passion which for years he kept hidden or denied.

smallman sorryloveyou

Smallman would later become a more outspoken fan, talking about it in his stand up and even setting up his own wrestling company, PROGRESS Wrestling. And now he turns his hand to writing about the history of the business.

The book charts the course professional wrestling has taken, going from being a real sporting contest to the sports entertainment we have today. Smallman focuses largely on US wrestling, but does take time to discuss the history in Japan, Mexico and the UK.

For wrestling fans some of this will be familiar territory- Vince McMahon’s vision in expanding and growing the WWF he took over from his family, the Monday Night Wars, the rise and fall of ECW and the Montreal Screwjob. But there is some stuff I didn’t know about, the formation of the NWA and a lot of the early years of the sport were fresh to me.

Smallman’s writing is free of pretension and conversational in tone, making this an easy read that delivers the information, along with interesting asides and informed opinion, in a way that avoids becoming dry or dull. It’s not a complete history, but Smallman never sets out to do that, instead capturing a sense of how wrestling has evolved and changed over the decades.

It benefits from Smallman’s fandom, and also his inside knowledge of the business, and he often uses this perspective to offer explanations for some of the more controversial decisions made by some promoters. I also liked that he includes various top ten lists throughout the book, explaining his choices briefly and introducing me to some new names.

It’s a good read, even if has left me with a whole list of matches and wrestlers to seek out. It might not go into great depth on the whole history, but for most fans this will give a good overview and is a good place to start learning more about the background.

Verdict: A good, short history of the professional wrestling business told in an easy, engaging way. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Partners in Crime by Agatha Christie

I’d quite enjoyed the introduction of Christie’s crime-fighting duo Tommy and Tuppence in The Secret Adversary, and having got into Christie’s other writings recently, decided to pick up this collection of their continuing adventures.

Now married, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford are approached by their old government agent friend Mr Carter to assist in a new mission. An enemy spy has recently been exposed and taken into custody, this man being Theodore Blunt, the head of the International Detective Agency. In order to capture his co-conspirators, they need to keep the offices open and have someone pose as Blunt. Knowing their quick wits and love of adventure, Carter asks Tommy to pose as Blunt and for Tuppence to assist him.

christie partners

And so, the Beresfords take up the challenge waiting to catch the spy they expect but in the meantime working on the cases that are brought in for them. Each case is usually a short affair and the bantering duo approach them inspired by the detective novels they love, often using the approaches of different fictional detectives. There are lots of little jokes along the way and parodies of various crime fiction characters, including Sherlock Holmes and Christie’s own Hercule Poirot.

Their adventures are diverting enough, and Christie should be applauded for the sheer variety of cases that come their way, and the ingenious way she lays out the stories. The writing is often knowing and witty, acknowledging the silliness of the two main characters. Tommy and Tuppence are a fast talking pair, bouncing off each other nicely and a likeable duo, often unfazed by whatever danger they blunder into. They are definitely more endearing than Poirot, if less skilled, and their mix of bluff, luck and moments of ingenuity make for entertaining stories.

Lots of fun and quite a quick, easy read. They may be lightweight affairs, but the Tommy and Tuppence cases are a fine way to pass the time and I will be catching up with them again in the future.

Verdict: A series of fun and clever mysteries, Christie is incredibly clever at dropping in the little clues and hints throughout, and her heroes are immensely likeable. An entertaining and involving read. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Hiroshima by John Hersey

I didn’t enjoy this book, but I would still recommend it.

In 1946, John Hersey spoke to six people who had been in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped, he then wrote the story of what happened to them on that day and afterwards. In 1985, forty years after the attack he wrote about what had happened to them over the years.

hiroshima hershey

The atomic bomb attack is one of the key moments of World War II but yet is one I’ve never really heard about in depth before. I dimly recall reading something about it in school but that was a short piece, and fictional, I think. But here Hersey presents a detailed and at times difficult to read retelling of the horrors that the city endured.

Hersey’s writing is strikingly evocative and doesn’t flinch from the grim details. He reflects the responses of his subjects and their mindset, often almost numbed by the relentless suffering they witness. There are moments recounted here that I will probably remember for the rest of my life.

Almost as grim as the first few days is the story of the aftermath, with people suffering from radiation sickness and having to rebuild their shattered lives in a devastated city. One of the survivors, Kiyoshi Tanimoto, endeavours after the war to help his fellow survivors and also to work towards peace. During this sequence, Hersey inserts updates on the nuclear proliferation that followed, and ends with a depressing note that just as Tanimoto’s memory starts to fail it appears the world’s collective memory is already forgetting the horrors of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki.

This is a tough read in places, filled with heartbreaking tragedy and moments of genuine horror. And yet there are also moments of kindness and heroism, as well as quiet moments of endurance and personal strength.

It’s worth reading for providing an insight into an important piece of history which is often glossed over or reduced to statistics. To see the human face of the suffering makes it resonate even more and highlights the evil of nuclear weapons.

Verdict: Grim but powerful reading, Hersey’s skilled writing captures the chaos and pain of the events that follow the bombing. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Origin by Dan Brown

I quite like Dan Brown’s novels, which are pretty good on the level of gripping page turning thrillers, and this fits the same mould as his earlier books that I’ve read The Da Vinci Code and Deception Point. This is a sequel to Da Vinci Code, and our hero again is Robert Langdon who has to run around more European cities as he tries to solve clues and avoid a tangled conspiracy.

origin brown

Langdon is in Madrid to hear a friend and former student deliver a presentation which is touted as having massive repercussions for all mankind. The presentation is to be given by Edmond Kirsch, a billionaire tech genius who promises that it will answer the major questions of “where we come from and where we’re going” as a specious and will damage a lot of religions, which Edmond is fine with, being a rather vocal atheist.

Edmond has shared the presentation with three major religious leaders, who were shaken by his findings. While the presentation is going ahead Langdon is warned of an assassination attempt by Winston, the advanced AI that Edmond built which serves as the guide around the museum where the presentation takes place.

Langdon is unable to stop Edmond being killed and in the aftermath is under suspicion, but the assassin is revealed to have been added to the list last minute at the request of the Spanish royal family. The heir to the Spanish throne, Prince Julian is said to have asked for the man to be admitted and his fiancee, Ambra Vidal, is the museum curator. Are the royal family behind the assassination? Are they in league with the Catholic church to hush up Edmond’s discovery?

Langdon and Vidal, assisted by the computer Winston decide that they should find a way for Edmond’s presentation to be aired and need to work out what Edmond’s secret password was and where the supercomputer to launch it is. And so Langdon and Vidal are on the run while the assassin follows them from Madrid to Barcelona as they follow the clues.

Can they figure out the 47 character password needed to access the presentation? Who can they trust? Who is behind the assassination and can they stay ahead of the killer?

First the good parts of this book, there are some nice discussions of religion vs science, especially the view held by Langdon that both are trying to answer the same questions but in different ways. Can religions survive as science progresses?

Also the action is well done, and Brown’s habit of short, punchy chapters make this a very easy, quick read that quickly draws you in. There’s enough intrigue and doubt to keep you guessing and the mystery over who is behind the assassination is handled well although I did guess it ahead of the reveal. But credit to Brown who does set up a few different possibilities and ensures you’re never sure who Langdon should trust.

And now the weaknesses. One is the character of Edmond, who I thought was a bit of a dick, meaning that when he does get whacked I wasn’t massively upset about it. It clearly has an impact on the other characters, but I was just glad that we wouldn’t have to put up with the pompous character anymore.

Which leads me to the second, and bigger, flaw in the novel. After the entire book sets up the earth shattering nature of Edmond’s presentation when it’s finally revealed I found it massively underwhelming. For one thing, it drags a bit and Edmond continues to be a self aggrandising douche, but worse is that it’s not even that big of a deal. Having been set up as proof that will shake the world’s religions it doesn’t have that impact and the “proof” Edmond has found is a bit shaky.

While some is explained, that Edmond softened the ending a bit, it doesn’t quite hang together. This section of the book stumbles a bit, feeling slow and overly wordy. And as I said, I don’t think anything that is said would impact that much on religion. Maybe Edmond just thought he was a bigger deal than he was?

Verdict: For the most part this book works as a blockbuster read, but the ending lets it down. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

 


Book Review: The Kingdom by the Sea by Paul Theroux

This is an odd one for a travel book as it doesn’t concern far off and exotic places, instead it deals with places that are often familiar to me. In 1982, after eleven years living in London, Paul Theroux realised that he still hadn’t seen much of Britain, the capital city being almost a separate country. And so he set off to travel clockwise around the coastline, and records his impressions here.

theroux kingdom

The book is an odd mix of the familiar and the alien, while many of the place names are familiar (Eastbourne, Barry Island, Tenby etc.) there are big differences. As L.P. Hartley observed, the past is a foreign country, and while there are some things that haven’t changed, some of the sights witnessed by Theroux feel foreign to me.

Theroux records the journey in his usual intelligent, captivating way, with a keen eye for the characters he meets and a way of making insightful observations about the local character and outlook. Throughout his quick sketches and impressions of the people he encounters feel real, and he captures their contradictions and foibles wonderfully.

Travelling as the Falklands War rages, Theroux uses this frequently to examine the British outlook and attitude, and as an outsider can see the odd way the country works. He remarks on the depression and grim economic times, the jingoistic tabloid coverage at odds with the more quiet way the public deals with the war, and the way that Britain is changing but unchanged. Old castles that have stood for centuries remain as do old traditions, even as industries die around them and factories fall quiet.

It’s an interesting look at a certain period of British history, a ground level look at the way people lived, capturing the society with an outsider’s eye. Theroux is wry and humorous in places, and his relationship with Britain is complicated, a mixture of affection, frustration and confusion. There are places he hates along the way, but often he finds something to admire, whether it’s the landscape or the people.

An interesting and entertaining read, quite nice to read about places you know and see how they’ve changed, and how they’ve stayed the same.

Verdict: A very engaging read helped by Theroux’s writing which is insightful and smart throughout. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Dawn of the Dead by George A. Romero and Susanna Sparrow

The second of George A. Romero’s zombie movies, Dawn of the Dead, is where my obsession with the undead began. Not a direct sequel to the earlier Night of the Living Dead it works as a companion piece, another story from the same world. Just as dawn follows night, the film takes place a little further along down the zombie apocalypse. I saw it first and as much as I love Night, I probably prefer Dawn.  This makes it even more annoying that I haven’t seen the movie in years. It’s never on telly, I can’t find it on Netflix and tracking down a DVD is proving tricky too.

My old copy, taped off BBC2, is long gone now. And yet a lot of the movie is still fresh in my head, whole scenes are clear to me and I remember the tone well, a mix of dark comedy, grim tension and subtle satire of our commercialised world. Driven by instinct the living dead are drawn to places that were important to them, in this case a mall.

The novelisation of the movie caught my eye on the shelf in a book shop, and I had to grab it.

dawnofdeadbook

And I am so glad I did.  As Simon Pegg states in his introduction a book provides a different perspective to a film, and here we get to see more of the inner lives of our four survivors as they hole up at the Monroeville Mall. Fran, who works for a Philadelphia television studio is watching the world go to hell and decides to flee in the station’s traffic chopper with her boyfriend Stephen. Joining them is Stephen’s friend a SWAT tropper named Roger and his comrade in arms, Peter, who he meets during a disastrous raid.

The mall, despite having plenty of zombies around, makes an attractive proposition and despite originally having planned to load up before moving on to Canada, the group linger there, enjoying all the cool stuff they find there. But is it as safe as they think it is?

I really dug this book because like the movie it captures a sense of constantly simmering tension, even when the guys are living it up, there’s an artificial joviality to things, and the dead are never far away. The characters are more fleshed out here, particularly Peter, who is developed slightly more than the tough badass he is in the movie and the tensions between him and Stephen are better explained. Similarly, Fran and Stephen’s relationship makes a bit more sense.

The action is written in a fast paced, engaging way and Romero, with co-writer Sparrow succeeds in making it incredibly tense in places. The story is simple but involving, and it moves along at a good speed, while still letting the story breathe in places. I really loved this book, but it’s just made me want to rewatch the original movie again.

Verdict: A gripping and entertaining story, much like the movie it is based off. The characters are slightly more detailed here, and it captures the vibe of the survivors fraying under the pressure of the civilised world ending. A must for zombie fans. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: My Mother Was Nuts by Penny Marshall

I think I got this book on offer. It’s the only reason I can think of why I downloaded it, because while I’m vaguely familiar with Penny Marshall’s work and love a couple of her movies (Big and A League of Their Own), I’d not given much thought to what her personal life was like. Well, thanks for that offer.

marshallbook

Like her friend Carrie Fisher, Marshall has been in and around Hollywood for most of her life. She moved out to LA in her twenties at the end of the sixties to join her successful writer brother Garry, and soon started picking up acting gigs, becoming a star thanks to the Happy Days spin off Laverne and Shirley, which I’ve never seen. While Happy Days and it’s other spin off Mork and Mindy were shows I watched as a kid, Laverne and Shirley didn’t seem to get repeated here.

Married to actor, writer and director Rob Reiner she became part of a group of Hollywood friends. Later she would move into directing, and with Big become the first woman to direct a film that made over $100m.

And also, like Fisher, she tells her stories with energy and humour, albeit in a slightly less scatterbrained and meandering fashion. She talks about on set difficulties, of her past excesses and indiscretions, her loves and losses.

It’s a wonderfully entertaining read, the supporting players a cast of big names like Tom Hanks, Jack Nicholson, Madonna, Drew Barrymore and Whitney Houston. But she’s also at home with the crews of her film, the firemen she meets after 9/11 and the old friends from her neighbourhood in the Bronx who she remains close to.

Marshall writes in an easy, unpolished manner which draws you in and gives you a sense of her personality and humour. She’s funny and warm, honest and introspective. She admits to her failings but fights her corner too.

There are moving passages as she details the loved ones lost along the way. Yet her own battle with cancer is handled with humour and a lack of moping. Marshall is a force to be reckoned with, full of life and spirit. She says early on that she always liked to play, but while there is playfulness there’s something else at work, a constant driving energy that leads her to throw herself into what comes her way. An energy that helps her succeed and opens new doors for her. It’s a life well lived, and a life well written about.

I dipped in and out of this book, but whenever I did it left me warmed and amused.

Verdict: A life story told in a warm and unpretentious manner, Marshall’s energy and charm infuses the entire book. It made me smile numerous times, but also tugs the heartstrings. There’s some interesting showbiz gossip, a look into the private lives of big name stars, but at it’s heart it’s Marshall’s story. The story of a woman of humour and boundless energy, who throws herself into the opportunities and challenges that appear in her path, and succeeds. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.