Book Review: Strangers Have the Best Candy by Margaret Meps Schulte

I picked this up as a book about a woman encouraging talking to strangers as a way of meeting unique characters and hear great stories appealed to me.

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The problem is that while we should all give strangers a chance, and you’re bound to hear some good stories MMS is not the woman to recount them. Her writing feels flat and the stories aren’t that funny or interesting, for much of the book it’s just a series of slightly interesting stories and moments told by a dull narrator.

Someone like Bill Bryson or Paul Theroux travels and can tell amusing anecdotes or make it a fascinating read that makes you want to pack your bags. MMS is not one of them, and it makes you want to travel because at least then you’ll be able to have your own stories that will probably be more interesting.

Verdict: Schulte’s attitude is admirable, and her ideas on interaction valid, but as a writer she lacks real wit and insight and it all feels rather flat. It failed to hold my interest. 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Book Review: Gunthar and the Jaguar Queen by Steve Dilks

I checked this out because I’m keen to read a few more fantasy novels and this was cheap on the Kindle. It also looked to be a quick, easy read and in that respect it was an accurate assessment.

To say Dilks owes a debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs (the Barsoom series particularly) and Robert E. Howard (Conan) is putting it mildly. He’s so far into their debt the muse bailiffs are probably pounding at his door.

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The novella follows Gunthar, a thief and swordsman on a dying planet who is hired to steal the black flame, said to hold the secret of eternal youth. Joined by a female warrior and a pirate, Gunthar sets off across the desert and sea to the land of the Jaguar Queen.

Who is this mysterious woman? How are they supposed to steal her treasured possesion from beneath the eyes of her ape-like subjects? Can they trust each other, or their employer?

I quite enjoyed this book because it was quick and easy, and I flew through it. It lacks depth and is a bit simplistic, but as a sword and sorcery piece it works well enough to pass the time.

I’ll check out more of Dilks’ work, but on this evidence he falls short of his forebears.

Verdict: Fun and easy if lacking flair and surprises. Overly simple in places, but entertaining enough. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Lost in Kandahar by Alex Berenson

I picked this up on the cheap and was curious to read a story about the war in Afghanistan. Berenson spent time with US troops coming to the end of their tour.

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I knew going in this was going to be short, being a Kindle single but it was extremely brief and as such it robs Berenson of the time to really examine the men and the war in depth. There are glimpses that suggest he is an accomplished writer but it feels rushed and shallow.

It’s interesting to see the war from the ground perspective and the strained relationship between the coalition forces and the Afghans. It also showed me something about the war I hadn’t known, which was that the Taliban fighters took a winter break in order to capitalise on the springtime heat and it’s effect on the armoured Americans.

Berenson captures a sense of the tedium on base which lies in stark contrast to the tension of the soldiers’ patrols where they’re constantly at risk from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices).

On the whole this book disappointed and I’ve read far more engaging and involved stories at men at war, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that Berenson probably could do a decent job, if he’d extended this a bit further.

Verdict: Far too short and lacking in real insight, a wasted opportunity. 3/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Ex-Communication by Peter Clines

This is the third part of Clines’ superheroes vs zombies series (I’ve already reviewed parts one and two) and I am really loving the series. This third installment sees the besieged heroes under threat from the undead once more and also introduces fresh threats for them to deal with.

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Clines has established the world of his stories and he develops them further here, adding subplots about the nature of death and the characters’ differing views on the zombies. When a hero returns from the dead, but not as a zombie, it ruffles feathers as some view it as a sign that the souls linger and their loved ones can come back. This tension doesn’t help as fresh threats emerge and more players enter the frame.

Can St. George, Captain Freedom, Stealth, Cerberus and Zzap remain a united front and work out what is going on? Can they trust their former ally? And will they be forced to accept that magic is real and there are worse things than zombies?

I dug this book even though I think it doesn’t match the second part. It’s still a solid story with some decent dialogue and a couple of twists. It also helps that Clines investigates fresh themes and merges different genre trappings to make a zombie world that feels new and different.

He builds it slowly, drawing together all the different strands before an incredibly exciting finale which had me utterly hooked. I devoured it in large chunks and got totally lost in the book, which is always a good thing.

The writing is a little formulaic in places and some characters still feel two dimensional but these flaws are made up for by Clines’ strengths in other areas and a few of the characters are really coming together. St George in particular impresses but a few of the others are distinct and engaging too.

I know there’s a fourth book and I look forward to getting into it soon.

Verdict: Clines continues to create an interesting world and develops his characters. He’s not the flashiest writer but it works and this is engrossing and fun. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Free Country by George Mahood

Land’s End to John O’Groats is a famous journey here in the UK as these are the two furthest points on the mainland. Travelling it is a cult trip done by charity fundraisers and people who fancy a challenge.

George Mahood fancied a challenge so he and his friend Ben start at Land’s End in just a pair of boxer shorts. They plan to get all the way up to Scotland without spending a penny. They will rely on the kindness of strangers to provide them with food, lodgings, clothing and hopefully bikes.

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It’s a cracking idea and an interesting route and the book is passably enjoyable. It falls down however due to Mahood’s writing. He constantly looks for humour, which is good, but far too often it’s juvenile and his snarkiness undermines the point of the trip, which is to find nice people. The people they meet are nice but Mahood’s bitchy asides are definitely not.

There’s also a stream of gay jokes throughout, the kind of thing a teenage boy finds funny and it gets old fast. The result is that Mahood and Ben start to come across as a pair of plonkers and it never inspires much warmth, or at least it didn’t in me.

Some of the events are funny and quirky, and I’d be lying if I said some jokes didn’t land but at too many fall flat or feel lazy.

Mahood’s writing is also kinda bland and he lacks the nuance to tip it into greatness. It passes the time but for a tale of travelling through charity I’d say you’re better off with Mike McIntyre’s The Kindness of Strangers.

Verdict: A decent idea but the narrator is a bit irritating and the writing pedestrian. A few moments raise a smile, even an occasional laugh, but on the whole it’s lacklustre. 5/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin

It has been two years since I finished the fifth installment of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, series and since that day I’ve been eagerly awaiting the release of part six. It’s been a painful wait and now the TV adaptation Game of Thrones has caught up with the books and the two will diverge further, meaning when I get to it I’ll have expectations and ideas that may be miles off.

The major irritation however is not being able to enjoy more of Martin’s amazing writing and the world of Westeros that he has created. This book, collecting three novellas, exists in the same world but is a very different beast.

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Set a century before the first installment they follow the adventures of Dunk and Egg. A young, hulking hedge knight and his quick witted squire, who has a secret about who he really is.

In a way they serve as a good introduction to the world, showcasing the down and dirty medieval world he has created. Here dragons are a recent memory, and magic still believed in, but the more pressing dangers are men and their ambitions.

It lacks the sprawling, split perspectives of the others, sticking with Dunk exclusively and so we see things from the perspective of the brave but naive knight. He blunders along and gets involved in his adventures and relies on his skills with a sword to survive.

The tales are short but involving and in Dunk Martin creates a likeable and heroic lead, who you root for throughout. There are not of the duo’s adventures planned and I am eager to read on. But far more eager for part six of A Song of Ice and Fire, although I’ll have to reread the previous ones to refresh where I am.

If the size of those other books puts you off check this out as it’s a nice, smaller introduction and will let you know if it’ll be your kind of thing. Although it is worth mentioning that it lacks the complexity and ambiguity of those books.

Verdict: Entertaining and showing Martin’s skill as a writer it gave me my Westeros fix and would work as an introduction for new readers. Full of action and bits of humour, it’s a cracking read. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Death of WCW by R. D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez

The Monday Night Wars took place during my break from wrestling, but it was a historic and important time for professional wrestling. The two major companies WCW and WWF (now the WWE) went head to head. For a while WCW was in front, thanks in part to the fact it was bankrolled by Ted Turner and boasted a hot faction in the NWO (New World Order).

But a few years later WCW was gone and Vince McMahon the owner of WWE bought it for a song. What went wrong is the focus of this book.

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The book is fantastically in depth, following WCW on an almost week-by-week level as it finally got on top, dominated and then imploded. The writing is passionate and engaging, with a sarky, informal style that really worked for me.

The writers capture a snapshot of the behind the scenes chaos that ensued within the organisation, and the terrible decisions that led to its downfall. Some of the gaffes and ideas are laughable, almost irredeemably stupid.

It seems that the egos of certain stars ran wild, refusing to accept that they needed to step aside for fresh faces and instead hogging the spotlight until the audience got bored and switched channels.

At times the book is overly negative, WCW’s good points (they had a quality roster) are rushed over in favour of the stupidity that ensued and the bad matches. It’s easy to understand why, those are far more entertaining and explain the rapid decline of WCW.

For wrestling fans it’s fun as it expands on the stories you kinda know and shows the slow decline of the company. For non-fans it won’t win them over, but as a fan of several involved in the story I thoroughly enjoyed it, even if some of my heroes come off poorly.

Still, it’s an absorbing and entertaining read for wrestling fans.

Verdict: Entertainingly snarky and cutting it does skew negative a little too much but it gives a blow-by-blow breakdown of the errors made by WCW management. A good read. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie

I’ve never been much of an Agatha Christie fan, this is only the second of her books I’ve read (my thoughts on the first are here) and I must say I enjoyed this a whole lot.

Set between the wars this follows friends Tommy and Tuppence, who decide to set up a company to look for adventure. Their first case involves them being put on the case of a missing package which could have disastrous for Britain.

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The package in question was handed to a young girl towards the end of the First World War, the girl has since vanished. Arriving to aid Tommy and Tuppence is a young American, the missing girl’s cousin and a powerful lawyer.

The girl and package are tied up in a criminal conspiracy with plans to threaten the very safety of the British government. The figurehead is a shadowy figure who appears to have control over several people and pulls the strings on various plots.

Can Tommy and Tuppence work out where the package and the girl are? With the conspiracy being far reaching who can they trust?

I really enjoyed this book because Christie manages to create two engaging and likeable characters. Tuppence and Tommy are well rounded, and their individual traits ensure they spark off each other in an entertaining manner. The dialogue is fast paced and has a pulpy feel which I loved, and the action moves quickly.

The story is gripping and Christie keeps you guessing, laying false trails before the pay off which is wholly satisfying. Unlike Poirot or Marple the heroes here are more human and aware of their failings, and that’s the real triumph here, as Christie ensures that the reader cares about what happens to them. She also makes their relationship realistic and the personal aspect means just as much as the intrigue.

I’m keen to read more of Tommy and Tuppence’s adventures, and glad I picked up a cheap edition released to tie in with the recent TV adaptation (for which David Walliams seems woefully miscast as Tommy).

Verdict: A solid and enjoyable mystery thriller with decent characters and enough twists to keep the reader hooked. It’s quick, fun and gripping. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Guns by Stephen King

Last month I got sucked into a Twitter spat about US gun laws, after their most recent mass shooting. From a British perspective it just boggles the mind that the same cycle repeats with nothing done about it. I was ten when the Dunblane shooting happened, and I remembered being stunned and scared, but reassured that afterwards stricter gun laws passed. There hasn’t been a similar event since.

In the US, they happen with depressing frequency, and the pattern repeats over and over again. It’s this pattern that forms the first chapter in Stephen King’s essay on guns. With a depressing, cynical view King runs through the routine of what happens in the wake of a mass shooting.

Like King’s fictional work there is no shortage of flair on show and his writing is skilled and engaging. King’s stance on guns is pretty moderate, and governed by common sense. He understands the need for sensible controls on guns but accepts that little will change in the current climate of US politics.

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It’s here King suggests a novel idea that both political wings should be forced to watch the other’s media for a year in order to close the gap a little and encourage a proper conversation.

Throughout King shows wit and passion, writing convincingly and entertainingly he cuts to the heart of the problem and suggests possible solutions but mainly he points out the idiocy of some view points. It is a man who is tired and frustrated by the seemingly endless cycle of tragedies and inaction.

King also discusses an old novel of his that dealt with a related topic and was found in the possession of some shooters. He talks about his decision to pull it and his feelings about it.

It’s a quick read but well worth it and King impressed me with it.

Verdict: Impassioned and sensible, King writes a great essay about gun violence and the reasons why nothing seems to be changed. It’s an entertaining and involving read. 9/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Killer’s Choice by Ed McBain

I’m getting to be a bit of a fan of McBain and the men of the 87th precinct. This is the fifth installment and as usual follows the detectives as they attempt to solve a crime.

The crime here is a young woman gunned down in a liquor store, but as they delve into her life a series of contradictions appear and they struggle to get a clear picture of who she was. With a new member to the team and a series of dead ends, it is a frustrating time.

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The situation gets worse as one of their own is killed at the scene of a liquor store robbery. Are the two related, or is it mere coincidence?

I enjoyed this book, although it’s not the strongest entry in the series, with the core mystery being a little rushed in conclusion. What makes it though is McBain’s wry humour and the characters, with the 87th’s detectives all different and with individual traits which works well. The dialogue is fast and well observed. McBain develops the story with skill, layering in subplots and red herrings, which makes the final dash to the finish line even more frustrating.

I’m already eyeing up the sixth book.

Verdict: McBain is an accomplished writer but this one feels a bit flimsy and the ending disappoints. But there’s just enough in terms of humour, character and pulpy flair to get it through. 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.