Book Review: Murder in the Valleys by Pippa McCathie

I picked this up because I quite like a murder mystery, and I was quite interested to read one set in Wales. The plot follows Fabia Havard, an ex-detective who left the force under a cloud and now works as an artist.

mccathie valleys

However, she’s drawn back into crime and intrigue when she discovers the body of a young woman who has been killed in her small Welsh town. It’s harder for Fabia because the victim is someone she knows, and the officer in charge of the investigation is a former colleague she used to be friends with before they fell out, torn apart by secrets to do with her resignation.

The book jumps between Fabia, who can’t resist getting involved and her old friend, Matt Lambert, who’s investigation proceeds. There are a few suspects in the running, and plenty of secrets to uncover.

The plot is engaging enough, and McCathie does well in slowly revealing the reasons for Fabia leaving the force, even though some of the problems between Matt and Fabia could easily have been sorted out a lot earlier if they just talked. There are reasons why they don’t but it’s all somewhat flimsy and doesn’t hold up to much scrutiny. And even at the end the characters lack depth, with the writer telling us rather than showing us a bit too much.

The murder plot unfolds in a better way, with plenty of suspects and fleshed out backstories. I kind of twigged who the killer was, but not until a good portion of the way into the book, and until then there were a couple of people I was leaning towards. There are a few plot points which are easy to see coming, but McCathie keeps just enough mystery to not make it too obvious.

The writing is a bit flat in places, and the climax feels a little rushed and a bit too neat. But it passes the time well enough, it’s sort of the literary equivalent of Midsomer Murders or similar shows, a bit formulaic and unexceptional, but not entirely unsatisfying.

Verdict: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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Book Review: Doll by Ed McBain

This is a pretty dark and twisted entry to the 87th Precinct series, although the crime at the centre of it all is standard fare for Detective Steve Carella and his fellow officers. A successful model is murdered brutally, while her young daughter plays in the next room. Carella heads up the investigation, and soon comes to learn that the model’s perfect life may be marred by dark secrets.

mcbain doll

Lieutenant Peter Byrnes, is at the end of his tether with Bert Kling, the young detective who has been left embittered and jaded by the death of his fiancee (in Lady, Lady I Did It!). With Kling having a negative effect on the squad, losing his temper and  rubbing people the wrong way he wants him gone, but Carella asks to work with Kling, hoping to help the younger officer.

Unfortunately, Kling’s edginess hinders the investigation and Carella pursues a lead alone, placing himself in grave danger. Can Carella survive walking into the sadistic clutches of the villain? Will the rest of the 87th Precinct be able to retrace his steps and find out what happened to him? Can Kling overcome his grief and continue as part of the team?

I really enjoyed this book, even if it gets pretty dark in places. It helps that McBain is on top form with the writing, capturing the mindset of the different characters and writing several moving sections involving Carella’s deaf-mute wife Teddy. The case unfolds in interesting ways and given that it came out in 1965 there’s a surprising compassion and understanding to McBain’s writing on subjects like drug addiction.

The finale provides a pivotal moment in the series and it’s a testament to McBain’s skill as a writer that twenty books into the series he’s still crafting stories which go to new places and challenge our heroes. The writing contains his usual mix of insight into humanity, dark humour and a great ear for fast flowing, believable dialogue. Some of the links are explained a bit too quickly and easily, and the young witness is sidelined pretty early on, leaving me curious as to what became of her.

Verdict: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Half Time by Nigel Owens

For those who don’t know the name, Nigel Owens is a rugby referee who has gained quite a following due to him being quite funny both on and off the field. Refs in rugby wear microphones so television audiences have been treated to Nigel telling off hulking rugby players with some funny, jokey comments.

Owens came out as gay in 2007, and this book opens with him recounting a suicide attempt in the mid ’90s. Unhappy and unable to accept his homosexuality, hooked on steroids and suffering with bulimia, Owens was in a very dark place and he starts the story here before jumping forward to how his life has improved. “It gets better” gets an unfair rap from some, but Owens shows that there is a way to get out from under your problems and that life is better if you accept who you are and don’t try to hide things.

owens halftime

This emotional impact at the start, and Owens’ later discussion of his sexuality and personal struggles, are the stand out sections of the book, with Owens reflecting on how his mental distress clouded his view of the world and his relief in having made through it. Owens is very open about it, and talks about it in an open, simple way that the average person will understand.

Unfortunately, while Owens is an interesting and amiable bloke, and there are some nice anecdotes along the way, the book suffers in places due to him being too nice. He seems determined to make sure he thanks and references all the people who are important to him, which is a nice thing to do, but means there are times when he just lists names that mean nothing to the general reader, although I’m sure to those mentioned it’s a treat to see your name in a book. It just doesn’t add much.

Similarly, there are no big revelations and aside from a few refereeing stories, you don’t get much of a deep look into the game. It’s probably because Owens is still active and will have to cross paths with many of the figures again, perhaps when he finishes his career he can right a more open book and spill the tea. The title is already there for it.

That’s not to say it’s not amusing and interesting enough to pass the time, it just feels like Owens is holding back in places, that he doesn’t want to ruffle too many feathers and so it never really connects.

Owens comes across well, and his simple, no frills writing makes this an easy read, but there are too many places where it feels a bit too shallow and restrained. It’s good though to see a book which offers hope to people who might be going through a rough time and to hear that the macho world of rugby has accepted Owens into their hearts with very few difficulties.

Decent, but a little lifeless in places.

Verdict: 6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Monstrous Regiment by Terry Pratchett

It’ll come as no surprise that a nerdy bookworm like me is a huge fan of Terry Pratchett, the fantastically clever and funny writer of the Discworld series. I devoured a bunch of them in my late teens, and would probably put Pratchett on my all time favourite authors list. But somehow it’s been years since I picked up a Pratchett novel, and frankly, I feel like a fool, because a dozen or so pages into this book I remembered why I loved the guy’s stuff so much.

pratchett monstrous

The book follows Polly, a young woman from Borogravia, a small kingdom which is constantly at war with it’s neighbours. Governed by the decrees of a seemingly insane god who declares various things “abominations”, the small country is now facing an alliance of foes, all tired of their nonsense and seeking power. Polly is headed for the war, disguised as a boy, to find her brother. She joins the Ins-and-Outs as one of a small bunch of recruits, under the command of Sergeant Jackrum, a cunning and battle hardened veteran.

As their march progresses Penny starts to learn that she is not the only one pretending to be a man in the unit, and that war is more confusing and stupid than she expected. Angering a pompous enemy Prince, the squad find themselves hunted by foes and commanded by a naive and untested Lieutenant. Can Jackrum keep his “little lads” safe? Will Polly find her brother? And just how many cross dressing soldiers are there in this conflict?

I bloody loved this. I was smiling and chuckling to myself throughout the book as Pratchett displays his usual flair for fast flowing, clever and incredibly funny writing. He layers in jokes throughout, with running gags, knowing asides and wry observations. Despite the fantastical setting, Pratchett is a student of the human condition, describing common failings, foibles and emotions.

There’s a healthy skewering of the romantic way war is often presented, with Pratchett describing a conflict of chaos, blundering, needless death and foolhardy attempts to be a hero. Polly and her comrades have to navigate the near sighted bureaucracy of the military, deal with propaganda and shepherd a rather foolish officer through the war. Polly is the reasonably clever and level headed character in a world of fools, nutters and unlucky bastards, and her perspective allows us to see the characters up close, her own insights growing as she observes them.

I really enjoyed how Pratchett slowly ramps up the ridiculousness of it all, adding in each daft development or twist in a way that never feels forced and just increases the humour of the novel. I particularly liked the way he managed to get some ‘Nam cliches in through the silly, but ingenious idea of “flashsides”, where somebody has visions of events happening elsewhere in the universe.

It’s one of those books I couldn’t wait to get back to every day and which thoroughly enchanted me throughout. A marvellous read filled with humour and heart.

Verdict: 10/10.

As I loved this one so much, I’m keen to go back to Discworld after I’ve worked through the small stack of books I’ve got waiting for me, so if there are any Pratchett fans reading this could you recommend which one I should read next?

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Race to Dakar by Charley Boorman

I’ve read a couple of Charley Boorman’s books before, about the two journeys he completed with Ewan McGregor. I quite liked these books, even if they got my feet itching and made me wish I could ride a motorbike, so when I came across this in a charity shop I thought I’d pick up a copy.

boorman dakar

The Dakar Rally is a legendary off road endurance race, with motorcyclists and drivers crossing the deserts of Africa in a race against time. Until 2009 it was raced from various points in Europe to Dakar in Senegal, but has since moved to South America due to security concerns along the African route. This book follows Boorman’s attempt to complete the race in 2006, from Lisbon to Dakar.

Boorman narrates much of the book, following his training regime and build up to the rally and thereafter his progress in the race. The closing stages are split between Boorman and his two teammates, following their diverging paths and experiences.

The problem I had with this book is that I knew how the story ended. It’s mentioned in one of the other books, and so a bit of the suspense was ruined. Even if I hadn’t known beforehand the book actually includes a massive spoiler as one of the pictures and captions a third of the way through reveals some significant developments to come. Poor editing that.

With this element of suspense damaged the book loses a bit of its edge. Similarly, there are sections where Boorman drowns the reader in jargon and technical terms, which made some sections utterly baffling to someone who knows very little about motorbikes.

That’s not to say it isn’t an interesting read and shines a light on the organised chaos that the Dakar Rally is. Boorman notes that the rally officials have to walk a tightrope- trying to minimise some of the dangers while also ensuring the race is still tough enough that completing it is an achievement and the event doesn’t lose it’s reputation and mystique. The organisers can’t quite manage it and there are serious injuries and even deaths along the way, with the majority of competitors either being disqualified or having to retire.

The tough aspect and the mayhem that the riders encounter makes for interesting reading, and the three narrators touch on the mental strength needed and the different characters who take part. Some attempt it once and walk away, while others are drawn back repeatedly, despite injuries and setbacks, they became almost hooked on the rally, obsessively returning to try and finish.

I enjoyed the book, but there were times when Boorman irritated me. He gripes a lot in places, which is fair enough, but he seems to have a chip on his shoulder. He seems obsessed with the idea that people want him to fail or come a cropper, and this gets a little tired especially as we see no evidence of it, in fact we see dozens of people who try to help him complete his goal. The other failing is that when his coach hassles him about slacking off, Boorman gets the hump and sulks, which is daft as his coach and teammate is a Dakar veteran and is talking a lot of sense.

I think the tension and pressure of the conditions don’t help Boorman, and unlike the other books there’s no McGregor to counterbalance his grumpiness. It’s a decent read and it held my intention, but there are times when Boorman’s moping is annoying and the book improves when the other narrators are added.

6/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: He Who Hesitates by Ed McBain

I returned to the 87th Precinct and discovered a very different story, with Ed McBain pushing his team of detectives to the fringes of the story, and the narrative following an outside character exclusively.

mcbain hesitates

Roger Broome is a craftsman who has come to the city to sell his wares and, having achieved this, should really be heading home to his small town home where he lives with his mother. But before he goes back, he needs to talk to the police and tell them what happens.

But while he heads to the 87th precinct to talk to a detective on a cold February morning he is held up by various errands and his attraction to the young woman who works at one of the shops he visits. Slowly, as the day progresses he reflects on what he needs to talk to the cops about and debates his choices for his future. Will he tell the police what he knows? Will he risk starting a new life with the woman he has met? Or will he just go on home to mother?

I really loved this book, which unfolds at a decent pace and works well for returning readers as we get to see Detectives Carella, Hawes, Meyer and Parker from a fresh perspective, judged by a stranger on their brief encounters.

It’s an interesting instalment in the series as it differs greatly from the regular format and style, giving a more psychological aspect as the protagonist deals with his issues of insecurity, remorse and unease. It’s fairly obvious what’s going on with the character about a quarter of a way through but up until this point McBain keeps you guessing, and there’s an uncomfortable building tension to the closing stages as a supporting character is placed in a dangerous situation. I started to worry the ending was going to be a bleak one, and it kept me clicking through on my Kindle. The ending, when it arrives, seems both fitting and unsatisfying, but in a way that makes sense and you suspect may be closer to reality than we’d like.

It’s wonderfully written, with stark imagery and some well observed dialogue, although it lacks the humour of most of the other books, possibly because our focus here is such a tightly wound character. It’s a brave departure for the series and an involving read, but I can’t help but hope we get Carella and Co back on centre stage next time.

Verdict: 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: A-Z of Hell by Ross Kemp

It’s been kinda weird seeing Ross Kemp’s career develop, from Eastenders‘ hard man Grant Mitchell to a documentary presenter who has travelled to some of the world’s most dangerous places and covered some pretty grim subjects, like war, crime and extreme poverty.

Given the harsh background of his travels, it’s a little bit surprising that this book is largely good fun, with Kemp sharing a selection of anecdotes and misadventures from the making of his documentaries.

kemp atoz

Kemp’s writing has a no frills approach which works well and he has a real flair for some pretty stark imagery along the way. But the main thing that shines through is his sense of humour, with Kemp telling the stories with warmth and humour, and a willingness to poke fun at himself which is quite nice. Given his background for playing tough guys, and the slightly macho marketing for his shows, it’s quite nice to see him ‘fess up to being a softy actor, and being open about his fears and discomfort.

Kemp comes across well, as a regular guy who gets the mixed blessing of getting to see things most never will. Some of the things he talks about are extremely dark and distressing, and Kemp talks about the challenge of being a documentary filmmaker who can’t intervene and who has to refrain from judging, even when dealing with people who have committed heinous acts. It’s clear at times it’s a difficult thing for Kemp to do, but he shows compassion, empathy and way background and upbringing can shape or warp people’s behaviour and values.

It’s a great read, made up of short, entertaining stories and Kemp is a pleasant guide on the trip. An interesting and entertaining collection of stories, memories and survival tips from a man who has been in plenty of interesting situations.

Verdict: 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Unfinished Business: A sort of review of Tattoos and Tequila by Vince Neil with Mike Sager

Motley Crue aren’t one of my favourite bands, probably not even troubling the top 20. That’s not a dig, I like a few of their songs and they were pretty ace when I saw them at Download a few years back, but musically they’re not the best and a lot of their fame comes from their off stage shenanigans.

The thing is, these excesses mean that the Crue are the band I’ve read the most about, having read the legendary, no holds barred oral history of the band The Dirt and bassist Nikki Sixx’s The Heroin Diaries, which sees Sixx reprint his diaries from 1987, with additional observations and reflections. Both are great reads, especially The Heroin Diaries, which presents a grim, detailed look into the life of a rock star trying to hold things together while in the grips of addiction.

So, when I saw a copy of lead singer’s autobiography on a charity stall I picked it up. Vince Neil is possibly the band member who comes across the worst in the other books, no mean feat as none of the band cover themselves in glory and show themselves to be self absorbed, petty and even cruel in places. And yet Neil is the least likeable. He lacks the slightly childish glee of Tommy Lee, or Sixx’s insight into his own failings. But, I felt it only fair to give him a chance to tell his side of the story in depth.

neiltattoosandtequila

The problem is that even given time and space to tell his story, Neil is hard to warm too, he “forgets” several moments and stories, especially those which paint him in the worst light, and he clings to old grievances and grinds his axes frequently. There are shots at his band mates throughout, with only a few grudging acceptances of their skill or role in his success.

The book is told pretty much in straight interview style, with the questions removed, and while this could work as a way of him telling the story, it fails because Neil keeps going off on tangents, talking about his businesses and the way he’s designed the bar that the interview takes place in. It takes the conversational tone a bit too far and makes it a meandering retelling which often distracts. When Neil talks about the upholstery or the memorabilia around him, we can’t see it and it adds little.

It’s a shame as the introduction, written from the perspective of his scribe Mike Sager, is solid. Sager is almost brutal in his honesty, talking about Motley Crue and Neil’s limitations as musicians, summarising their success and excess, and skewering some of Neil’s pompous traits. It’s a great opening and you feel that the book would have benefited from Sager having more input, chiming in with clarifications, corrections and his own observations.

As it is, the book just feels like one man rambling about  his own greatness and success while grumbling about those who have done him wrong. I got about a third of the way in and had to give up, I just couldn’t take it any more, Neil seems utterly unable to fully own his mistakes or reflect in any depth. A family member talks about how he loves to be the centre of attention and liked by others and it shows, as he seems unwilling to show any vulnerability or confess to things which might be judged harshly.

Lacking depth or wit, this just failed to hook me.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Zoo by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge

I’ve never read any James Patterson before, which is unusual as the guy is a writing phenomenon, cranking out 147 novels in the last 43 years, which works out at about three and a half books a year. That’s unbelievably prolific. I’ve seen a couple of the Alex Cross movies, based on his most famous character, a cop who tracks down serial killers, so I was a bit surprised to pick this up at a charity book stall and discover he had co-written a sci-fi thriller.

patterson zoo

The premise of this book is pretty simple, animals are turning on humans, acting abnormally and viciously. But why? And can it be stopped?

One of the problems with the book is that the premise is laughably daft, the whole man vs nature vibe coming across like a pumped up rework of The Birds, or the set up for a B movie, possibly starring Nicholas Cage. That’s not to say that it’s not entertaining, with the story unfolding in short, fast chapters which keeps the action flowing quickly enough for the reader not to stop and think too hard. It’s throwaway stuff, but entertaining enough.

There are a couple of plot holes which are never fixed, for example, our hero, Jackson Oz, has devoted himself to his theory of HAC aka Human-Animal Conflict. It’s cost him his academic career and trashed any reputation he could have held, leaving him viewed as a nutty conspiracy theorist. He’s broke, obsessively devoted to his cause, and in a downward spiral as it takes over his whole life. Oz is a true believer, that much is clear. So, why does the character take in a chimpanzee? If you thought animals were about to rise up against mankind you’d probably be reluctant to look after a neighbour’s hamster, let alone welcome a creature that can f**k you up easily into your home.

There’s also a bit of a cheat along the way, with a five year time jump, taking us from the early rumbles of nature declaring war to a more full blown scenario. It means that Oz and Chloe’s relationship goes from them having just met to having been married for a few years without any work put into creating a bond, it just happens in the gap.

Similarly, the perspective shifts frequently. Most is narrated by Oz, but there are also third person interludes dealing with poor suckers who get mauled by various critters, and even from the perspective of Attila, Oz’s former pet chimp. It’s inconsistent and seems to have been done to illustrate the global nature of the event, which makes you wonder why include any first person narration?

Oz is a likeable enough narrator, and adds a certain goofiness to proceedings, which is a good call as playing such a ridiculous premise completely straight would make it even dafter. There’s some nice tension, and kudos has to be given for turning a variety of different mammals into terrifying enemies, including a scene with a bunch of dolphins which is rather unsettling.

The curious thing is despite the silliness, there’s an unexpected weight in the closing stages, with the HAC serving as a metaphor for climate change. A solution is found near the end, but requires sacrifice and difficult living of mankind, will we adapt or is our selfishness and reliance on modern comforts too strong? It makes for an intriguing twist in the tale, and an uncomfortable reflection on humanity’s reluctance to change, even when the old ways are harmful.

Stupid, but a fun, quick read.

7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: No Wrong Turns by Chris Pountney

Yet again, I torture myself with travel writing. This is the first book about Chris Pountney’s attempt to travel around the world on his bike, with boats being the only other acceptable vehicle choice. There are no planes, trains or automobiles, because apparently quite a few cycle tourists will use the other modes on their travels. Pountney is going to cycle the whole thing, and not just in a convenient loop, nope, one of the other goals he sets himself is to cycle through 100 countries, leading him on a twisting, winding route across the world which sometimes sees him double back on himself.

This tells the first part of his journey, from Paris to Sydney, and it frequently made my feet itch. Cycle touring sounds damn appealing, a nice way to really see the day to day life of a country and culture. Of course, I doubt WoM would be up for this style of roughing it, and there’s also the pesky problem of not being able to ride a bike.

pountney no wrong turns

Pountney’s journey is a fascinating one, with him providing commentary on the different countries he passes through and picking up on cultural differences. Throughout the book there’s a constant theme of human kindness, with Pountney being offered food and shelter along the way, along with small interactions with friendly, helpful locals. It’s not all sunshine and rainbows, however, and Pountney shows the rougher side of life on the road- scammers, dangerous drivers, rude people and the unwelcoming.

It’s one of these dark patches that provides one of the biggest emotional punches of the book. On a road in Mongolia, a country which seems in the grips of a vast alcholism problem, Pountney witnesses a horrific car crash. He attempts to help but has to contend with apathy from the other bystanders and one hysterical helper who does more to hinder him. Pountney’s writing captures the chaos of the scene and he doesn’t shy away from the mental aspect, discussing the way the incident affected him. It’s here that the loneliness of his trip comes into sharp focus, and you feel for this man alone in a country where he can’t communicate how distressed and shaken he has been left.

Pountney is an honest writer in terms of his emotions, he confesses his fears and doubts, reflects on the moments when he was tempted to jack it in. A decision at a border crossing may seem minor and trivial, but he does a good job of making readers see just how important it is and what it means to him. It helps that he’s an incredibly likeable and funny narrator, capturing vivid caricatures of the people he meets and making little asides. I particularly liked the recurring motifs of his talking bike and his fantasies of what the film version of his trip would be like. Who hasn’t daydreamed about who would play them in a movie? (Nick Frost, if they de-age him, or Seth Rogen, if he puts weight back on. Personally I favour an animated movie, where I’m voiced by Samuel L Jackson).

There are a few points where I was a little exasperated by him, however. There’s his view of other travellers and tourists, which seems a bit smug, but I guess having been in the dark corners of countries he can see the fabrication in the more popular areas. It still seems a bit condescending to me. And there’s his constant quest for female company, which is a recurring theme.

It just gets a bit tiresome hearing a guy daydreaming about meeting beautiful women. I mean, we all do it, but keep it to yourself.

But the relationship side does give the book a bit of heart. There’s an early relationship with and old friend which is destined to be short lived, and a more optimistic ending, when a girl he meets on his travels decides to fly out and join him for a while in Australia, where he plans to stop and work to raise funds for the second half, which I will be downloading on my Kindle in the very near future.

All in all, it’s a fun, easy read about one man’s journey which gives you a humorous, personal insight into various countries and, for me at least, makes you wish you could just hit the road yourself.

8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.