Book Review: Conclave by Robert Harris

Whenever a Pope does the process for choosing his successor is the same; Cardinals from all over the world travel to the Vatican where they are locked in until a new Pope is chosen. This is the conclave. There have been two during my lifetime, and I’m fascinated by the whole thing.

The idea is that through prayer and meditation the Holy Spirit guides the Cardinals to the new leader. But a cynical view is that the lock in is essentially where the politics of the papacy plays out. Either way, the whole system is shrouded in mystery.

Clearly the idea intrigues Robert Harris too and he has written a smart, involving thriller which follows the Cardinals within the walls.

When the current, unnamed Pope passes away, the ball is in motion and as Dean of the College of Cardinals, Cardinal Lomeli is in charge of the show. There are several contenders and as the voting begins factions are forming.

Lomeli, aging and experiencing a crisis of faith, watches as the political machinations start up. Secrets and scandals bubble to the surface, and ambition muddies the water. Lomeli becomes increasingly suspicious of some of the frontrunners and investigates rumours and whispers. He wants to maintain the church’s reputation and avoid scandal, but it becomes apparent that there are lots of skeletons in the closets.

Does Lomeli have the strength of will to see it through? And as he does expose the corruption is he unwillingly moving himself up the pecking order? Leaving others questioning his motives.

This is a cracking read, with the twists and turns playing out in a well paced and involving manner. Lomeli is a decent hero, riddled with doubts and fear, but ultimately commited to doing the right thing. As the process wears on he becomes more proactive in ensuring the best man gets the big job.

Harris layers in the intrigue and uses the claustrophobic setting to his advantage, the isolated cardinals are sealed off from the outside world, meaning that Lomeli’s investigations are hindered and some information is revealed too late in a surprise ending which is impossible to see coming.

A fantastic read which hooked me in early and entertained me throughout.

Verdict: A very well written and involving thriller, Harris has a great knack for letting the story unfold at a decent pace and slowly allowing his characters to reveal themselves. There’s not much action but the political schemes are gripping. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Alone No More by Chris Philbrook

My new year resolution may have been to broaden my reading, but here we are back with the zombies. The second part in the Adrian’s Undead Diary series this picks up where the first left off. Our narrator, Adrian, is an ex-soldier who after the dead start walking and biting has holes up at the remote, elite boarding school where he worked.

Alone he tries to gather supplies, fortify his home and build a new life, all while dodging the undead who hunger for flesh. His only comforts being his cat, Otis, and the journal he writes.
The book is told in these foul-mouthed entries as he details his exploits and vents on his fears, theories and regrets. The journal format works as the missing days usually mean something has happened and the insight into Adrian’s mind set is well done. While a laddish, vulgar narrator at times Adrian is likeable enough and relatable, showing flashes of dark, self deprecating humour.

Philbrook changes it up with short chapters from the perspective of other character’s caught up in the apocalypse. Often people who have crossed over with Adrian’s story. In the first book these often ended badly but here there are a few that hint that life endures elsewhere.

As the story implies Adrian meets living people once again and these sections are quite moving as behind the bluster you can tell it means a lot to the frazzled hero to have company.

It builds to a strong ending and number 3 is on my wish list now. I’ll just have to fit some different books in between.

Verdict: Improves on the original and Philbrook impresses with his ability to capture his characters. The changing world works well and the arrival of more characters is a nice touch. A solid, entertaining zombie book. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Deception Point by Dan Brown

I’ve only read one Dan Brown novel before, The Da Vinci Code, and quite enjoyed it. Sure it was largely forgettable but there’s no denying that Brown knows how to craft an incredibly effective page turner and for me this book falls into the same territory- not a great book but a gripping read while it’s in your hand.

The story follows Rachel Sexton, who works for the National Reconnaissance Organisation (NRO) who run a network of spy and observation posts. Her working for the government is a problem for her father, Senator Sedgwick Sexton who is in the running to be the next President due to his stance of attacking government overspending. One of the rods he beats President Herney is NASA’s budget and failures.
Herney calls Rachel in and asks her to help with something very hush hush. He needs her to authenticate something as her job ensures she knows how to spot faulty or doctored evidence. She winds up in the Arctic where NASA have found a meteorite containing fossils of bugs. Big news.

Unfortunately some of the evidence is shaky and when Rachel investigates with some of the independent scientists called in to verify NASA’s findings they are attacked. 

Meanwhile her father’s campaign aide and one-time mistress, Gabrielle Ashe, is alerted that Sexton’s anti-NASA stance may be financially motivated and begins digging.

Is the meteorite genuine? If not, who has faked it and why? Who calls the shots for the elite soldiers after Rachel and the scientists? And how dodgy is Senator Sexton?

The plot whips along quite nicely and Brown does a good job in making the tension build up throughout. There are enough thrills to keep you going and by using quick, short chapters Brown keeps it moving so you find yourself racing along and ignoring some of the book’s flaws.

And there are quite a few. There’s a lot of scientific blather delivered through heavy handed dialogue and the characters are underdeveloped. Even the lead Rachel is a shallow, hastily created figure. Aside from a fear of water, a dead mother and a grudge against her dad she has nothing to her and the romance that develops with another character doesn’t feel right. It springs up so quickly and under such pressure that the bloke’s feeling that he can finally move on from his dead wife feels stupidly premature.

Incidentally a memory of his conversation with his wife is so cheesy and TV movie like it actually made me laugh aloud.

It won’t change your life and I doubt it will stick with me but it’s a gripping yarn and passes the time well enough. I blazed through it rather quickly and despite some dialogue that makes you roll your eyes it’s an engaging and gripping thriller. I was hooked in early and involved in the adventure, and am grateful I had it to help pass the time on an extremely boring shift.

Verdict: Brown isn’t the best writer but he does know how to create tension and keep the reader hooked. The pacing is done well and the central conspiracy involving enough that you forgive some of the failings and go along for the ride. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Heckler by Ed McBain

I’m not going to lie in the early stages I wasn’t hooked on this entry in the 87th Precinct series. The writing had the usual McBain flair and there’s some good dialogue but unlike several others it doesn’t hit with a big crime.

But when it does get going it really moves. Detective Meyer is contacted by an old family friend who has been having threatening calls to his business telling him to get out. Meanwhile, Detective Carella investigates an unknown male found dead and almost naked in the park. 

Slowly Carella ID’s his man, but is no closer to finding a reason for his death or for why his clothes were taken. The man’s name appears to be John Smith, which seems phony and doesn’t narrow it down.

At the same time a deaf man and three associates are planning something big, but what is their strategy and how are all three strands connected.

This is a pretty sharp thriller with a well done plot and the usual wit and well judged dialogue which are hallmarks of the series. It’s obvious early on that the two cases will be linked but how it all plays out is well done, especially a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Red-Headed League”. The criminal plot is grander than anything the men of the 87th have dealt with so far and McBain handles this well, talking about how the cops are always at a disadvantage and used to stupid criminals.

Here they have a smart crook with an elaborate plot and it stretches the!. The villain is smug and talks of playing numbers and probabilities, and it’s nice that in the end it all wraps up thanks to gut feeling and luck. It’s not the strongest but it’s still a solid thriller and once it gets going quite gripping.

Verdict: A decent thriller that takes a while to get going but soon hits its stride. McBain’s skills shine through and it builds to a tense finale. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Too Much Information by Dave Gorman

I’m a big fan of Dave Gorman, who has a witty and rather warm way of looking at the world. His stand up and writing is clever, well structured and, most importantly, very funny. In this book he turns his attention to all the little things that buzz around in modern life and which we kind of ignore, but are rather weird when you think about him.

Some of the material here will be familiar if you’ve watched his show on Dave, Dave Gorman’s Modern Life is Goodish as there is a bit of overlap. But there’s more here and a greater depth, and it is interesting how much we let wash over us. He highlights the odd quirks and foibles of the internet age with a wry look and while it’s mocking the tone is easy and avoids nastiness.

He seems aware that he’s over thinking things in places but his general thrust is that we do need to pay attention as otherwise these rude things will just become “how things are done”. 

It’s written in quick, bitesize entries and this means it’s the kind of book you can dip in and out of when you have a few spare minutes.

Verdict: A clever and funny read, an easy and light read. Gorman’s tone is warm and avoids being too nasty. A good read to dip in and out of. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Give the Boys a Great Big Hand by Ed McBain

This is another cracking instalment in the 87th Precinct series and is quite an interesting one. It opens with a patrolman seeing someone leaving a bag at a bus stop, and doing his duty he looks in the bag to find a severed hand.

With nothing else to go on, Steve Carella and the other detectives begin trying to find who the hand belonged to and who left it at the bus stop.

Their investigation leads them to two missing men, but they have no further leads, until they find an unexpected connection between the men, a stripper named Bubbles. The problem? Bubbles is missing too.

Like the other stories in the series this is a well crafted crime story which is helped by McBain’s knack for character and humour. The story unfolds at a decent pace and the shifts between different detectives keeps it fresh and further develops the characters who have been built up over the series.

It’s not the strongest in the series, with a slightly rushed ending, but it’s still an entertaining book and solid thriller.

Verdict: A well done thriller as can be expected from McBain, with a decent plot and some nice touches. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: She by H. Rider Haggard 

This is the second book by Haggard I’ve read, having quite enjoyed King Solomon’s Mines and intrigued by the premise of this book, which sees a journey to find a mysterious, mythical queen known as She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed. I’d seen a bit of the Ursula Andress movie and it seemed a fun adventure story.

Which it is. In places.

The central premise is a neat idea, as is the way it’s set up with an ages long story passed through a family for centuries, but it’s in the telling of this story that Haggard starts dropping the ball.

He talks about the story of a woman who escaped She and the son she bore, and her hope they would return to the kingdom, and describes it as being done in several languages. This is fair enough, but he shows the different languages and drags this section out far too long. Less is more, dude.

The other problem I had is there’s something of an anti-Semitic vibe to comments that She and others make, and as, with Solomon’s Mines, the ideas about different races are very outdated. 

And while there are a few thrills early on, far too much of it is a slog and while our narrator talks about how fascinating She is I couldn’t help finding her infuriating.

It’s a decent premise but feels like a wasted opportunity. and the climax is unsatisfying and flat. And the narrator is poorly chosen, with a self pitying streak which makes him appear whiny and rather pompous too.

Quite disappointing really.

Verdict: There are some nice ideas here but it never delivers on a good idea and there’s not enough action to keep it going. The finale falls flat and it’s a slog in places. 3/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Dark Recollections by Chris Philbrook 

I got this book cheap for my Kindle and decided to crack on with it this week. The first part in a series this is a zombie apocalypse novel told through the diaries of a survivor.

Our narrator is Adrian a former soldier who witnesses the dead rise. The story picks him up holed up inside a private school campus and over the entries he explains how he got there and what he’s doing.

For zombie fans this is familiar territory and for me the diary format always robs a bit of tension. We know our hero is still alive as they’re still writing and so the jeopardy is lessened.

That’s not to say that the book isn’t gripping as it’s written in a fast, no frills style and Philbrook reveals more of Adrian’s character as the story unfolds. Adrian is an often profane and laddish narrator, but there are signs of fragility and the writing is done so that while flawed he is oddly likeable.

The action is well done, stripped back and gritty. It’s a nice quick read and for a zombie fan like me ticks a lot of boxes. It will be interesting to see where he takes the story in future instalments. 

Verdict: Quick and easy to read with a believable and flawed narrator, Philbrook kicks off the series well and leaves the reader wanting more. The diary style weakens the peril but it is still an involving read. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do.  BETEO. 


Book Review: Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

I don’t think I’ve ever had such mixed feelings about a book before. I picked this up at a charity shop, only dimly aware of Virginia Woolf and her writing. Her stream of consciousness writing was mentioned in something I read recently and then by chance I saw this a copy of this.

What I enjoyed about this was the way Woolf captures how a train of thought winds about and the way people make brief, quick stories for those they encounter. Much of the book follows the eponymous character as she prepares to throw a party in the summer of 1923, running errands, meeting old friends and interacting with her family. From here it spins off to follow other character’s thoughts and actions, and this is all done very well.

The problems are is that the story doesn’t really build towards anything. Perhaps due to convention I expected the different strands to come together but they never do, and it all feels rather flat. And not much happens, which makes sense as it follows a regular day, but it means that at times it feels a slog. Page after page is devoured but very little has happened or changed.

Luckily despite these frustrations it does benefit from some fantastic writing, with Woolf having a distinctive voice and keen insight for how people think. Characters have recurring phrases or ideas, which rang true for me and every character’s view reflects their own outlooks and prejudices.

At times the writing is beautiful, with Woolf capturing snapshots of London life and creating evocative images and believable, familiar characters. Her talent is obvious but the story is thin and left me unsatisfied at the end.

Verdict: Some beautiful writing and a skillful execution of stream of consciousness make this a decent read, but Woolf’s talent can’t quite make up for a lack of incident and an unsatisfying ending. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom 

A short while ago a friend on Facebook posted a message about a sort of cultural exchange, making a chain where you sent your favourite book to a friend of a friend. I received a couple of books, including this one.

It’s probably not the kind of book I would have picked up myself but that’s the beauty of the whole idea as it meant I read a book I otherwise would have missed.
The plot concerns Eddie, an ageing maintenance worker at a seaside amusement park who is killed trying to save a little girl from an accident. Upon his death he finds himself in the afterlife where he meets five different people, all of whom have played some part in his life.

They help Eddie understand his life, and life in general and help him move onwards to find peace.

I really enjoyed this book which is written in an easy, flowing manner that makes it quite a quick read. Albom isn’t a showy writer but he is accomplished in knitting his idea together and creating an engaging, emotive book. Some of it is easy to see coming but it’s a well crafted novel about life, death and the way our stories are part of other people’s stories.

It’s sweet without lurching into saccharine overload and filled with warmth. Albom reflects on how people effect others and how we don’t always know the full story, regardless of how well we think we know someone. (My only real quibble is a section where a wrongdoing is explained away and the wrongdoer seemingly absolved, which didn’t ring true with me, the excuses not being enough to erase the deed).

It’s a clever, warm read and presents a rather reassuring view of the afterlife.

Verdict: A clever idea executed simply and effectively, Albom writes with an easy, compassionate tone which makes this a thoroughly nice experience. In the best way. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.