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.

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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.

 


Book Review: Fire and Blood by George R. R. Martin

Five years.

I’ve been waiting five years for George R. R. Martin to release the next instalment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I reread the whole series thus far last year, as I’d heard rumours that book 6, The Winds of Winter, was due out in 2018. It never appeared. Instead, we got this book, which is set in Westeros, but doesn’t continue the story, giving more background and history. But, so desperate for some new material I seized upon it.

fireandblood martin

This book tells the first part of the history of the Targaryen dynasty, spanning over a hundred years of fictional history. It begins with Aegon I using his dragons to conquer and unite the Seven Kingdoms, before going on to tell the stories of his successors and their reigns on the Iron Throne. Martin brings us right up to the beginning of the reign of Aegon III, who takes the Throne as he turns 16, relieving his regents of the task.

I quite enjoyed this book and it’s hard not to admire the sheer depth and scope of the world that Martin has created. As he crafts this history he manages to create fascinating stories and subplots, interesting moments and asides which create a sense of a rich and detailed universe.

But the style used, a history crafted by a character within the world, robs the reader of some of Martin’s best traits as writer. It lacks the immediacy and gripping edge of the other novels. One of the best features of ASOIAF is that Martin brings everything down to the ground, shifting perspective between a group of characters to really engage the human aspect in a world of magic and monsters. The changing perspectives also challenge reader attitudes and ideas of good and bad, creating a world of shifting sympathies, complex characters and infinite shades of grey.

While there are some moments of ambiguity here, the story is more straightforward and as interesting as the stories are they’re told in a detached manner. It’s a pity as some of the events and characters here would have made for great novels in their own right, instead of being minor elements here. I had this impression when I read The Princess and the Queen last year, and that tale is reprinted here, but there are other parts which you wish he had delved deeper into.

That being said, there are plenty of great stories here and Martin continues to eschew romanticism, injecting brutal reality and grim cynicism into proceedings. There are even moments of black humour.

I especially like that it reads like a real history, with the narrator debating the sources he has to work with, comparing different versions of the stories and posing different theories for the actions of the players involved.

It’s a decent read, but I couldn’t help feeling that I would have preferred Martin not to have bothered and cracked on with the Winds of Winter instead, oh, well, hopefully it arrives in 2019.

Verdict: It’s a solid and fascinating work, but the style hampers Martin and it feels like a missed opportunity, like brief summaries of novels you wish he’d write. Still, it entertains and the scale is impressive. I’ll  definitely read part two. A helpful dose of Westeros for his fans as they await the next novel. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Adventureman by Jamie McDonald

I can’t remember when or why I downloaded this book onto my Kindle, but I’m glad I did, as Jamie McDonald’s story of his epic run across Canada is a charming and inspiring tale.

mcdonald adventureman

As a young child, Jamie was beset with serious health problems and at one point it was doubtful that he would be able to walk again. Incredibly, he would not only recover but confound expectations, and as an adult, to repay the children’s hospitals which had helped him he began undergoing massive fundraising efforts.

Having cycled from Bangkok to Gloucester and set the world record for longest time on a static bike (268 hours) and then he undertook this intense challenge. He would run from the East coast of Canada to the West, travelling 5000 miles, around 200 marathons back to back.

The sheer scale of the challenge itself is impressive enough, and I couldn’t help marvel at the determination, strength of will and optimism that McDonald displays. He raised thousands of pounds for children’s hospitals in both Canada and the UK, and understandably, his story has inspired many.

McDonald writes with a simple, conversational tone, capturing the harsh elements and challenges he faces along the way. There are bouts of loneliness and mental struggles in keeping going, but thanks to the support of countless Good Samaritans along the way, and his own spirit, he keeps going regardless.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, charmed by the affable Jamie and hugely inspired by his fundraising work and enthusiasm for helping others. This is a book that restores your faith in humanity, highlighting the selflessness, kindness and heroism that people display at their best.

It’s understandable that Jamie is viewed as a real life superhero, it’s hard to argue that his endurance and achievements don’t border on the superheroic. And the idea of adopting his own alter ego is charming and clever, helping to raise his profile.

Jamie continues his good work through the Superhero Foundation and is currently running across the US. You can follow his progress online, via his Twitter and I am currently doing that, and planning to donate come payday. He’s also inspired me to try my own bigger fundraising event next year, although mine won’t be as physically demanding.

Verdict: An inspiring and wonderful story of one man’s heroism and endurance. Lovely stuff. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Ax by Ed Mcbain

I returned to the 87th Precinct and was treated to a short, sharp detective story as Detectives Carella and Hawes try to solve a brutal murder. The elderly janitor is found in the basement  of the building where he works, the victim of a brutal attack with an axe.

mcbain ax

Love the weirdness of the cover on the top left

The detectives struggle to find a motive for the vicious attack, and several possibilities run to dead ends. Is it connected to his mentally unstable wife? Or the small-time gambling that goes on in the building?

I think this is the shortest of the 87th Precinct cases so far, told in ten punchy chapters. McBain has stripped the story right back, there are no subplots or personal dramas this time around, just this one murder case that the cops have to slog through. The writing fizzes with McBain’s dark humour, poetic flashes and flair for dialogue and characterisation.

Despite the short format he still succeeds in injecting depth to his supporting characters and builds the case slowly, dropping little clues along the way which only really come together at the end. It’s also really interesting that this is a case of murder for extremely minor motivations, the brutality of the killing wholly disproportionate to the reasons behind it.

A quick read which grips you early on and doesn’t let go this is a fun, fast addition to the series.

Verdict: McBain’s skill isn’t diminished by the shorter style and this is a great quick read. Solid work from a master of the crime novel. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Why I Write by George Orwell

I’ve read a fair amount of George Orwell’s nonfiction work over the last couple of years, and been really impressed with his writing. Unfortunately, this collection of four essays was a bit of a disappointment.

orwell write

The eponymous essay that kicks off the book is decent enough, as Orwell discusses how he wanted to be a writer from a young age, and how writers are motivated by the same urges, regardless of what they write. He talks about how his writing became more political, and how politics play a part in every writer’s work at some level. It’s an interesting insight and break down of his career up until this point in 1946.

The second part is “The Lion and the Unicorn”, where Orwell reflects on England and the English. He discusses his belief of what constitutes the English national character and his attitudes towards it. Written during the early years of the Second World War it also includes commentary about the inter-war years, British politics and the ineptitude of the ruling class.

The problem is, that it all peaks far too early. Beginning with the sensational opening line “As I write, highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” it never captures that level again, while there are some nice observations it’s all rather long winded and I found it hard going. It also feels like a commentary on a society that I don’t recognise, these aren’t universal truths on show but rather a snapshot of a social order which was never completely the same after the war.

I think the problem with this essay is that Orwell is rather too engrossed in analysis and commentary, and it loses the personal level that runs through his best work. In fact, my favourite of the pieces is “A Hanging”, which tells of an execution in Burma, where Orwell served as a police officer. While Orwell once described it as “only a story”, he would have witnessed executions and there’s an air of reality which is hard to shake. The short, stark piece captures the way this terrible event has adopted a certain formality and monotony, but also the impact it has on the officers involved. It’s powerfully evocative and definitely the stand out.

On the whole I found this book a bit of a dud. While “A Hanging” is superb the other pieces have only brief moments that landed for me, and some I found rather drawn out and hard to engage with. Perhaps I’m just not in the right head space at the moment, but this is the first time since my failed attempts at 1984 that I’ve been left cold by Orwell’s writing, “A Hanging” aside.

Verdict: Two of the four essays are average, one is a chore and only “A Hanging” really worked for me. Orwell’s intelligence is on show, but he loses his way and it lacks the small, personal edge that is one of my favourite things about his writing. 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: Angels & Demons by Dan Brown

I quite like Dan Brown’s novels, they’ve consistently proven to be entertaining, fast paced thrillers. And this book, the first entry in the Robert Langdon series shows that Brown got his formula down early.

angels brown

We’re introduced to Langdon as a quiet, slightly quirky, Harvard professor specialising in “symbology”. In the middle of the night he gets a desperate phone call and is faxed a gruesome crime scene photo depicting a man branded with the long lost Illuminati brand. The Illuminati being a secret brotherhood of influential scientists who wish to destroy the Catholic church for it’s persecution and smothering of previous scientific thought. Langdon, an expert on the group, is sceptical, as the group is thought long dead.

A short super-jet flight later and Langdon is at the CERN facility in Switzerland. The dead man is a scientist and Catholic priest, and it transpires that he was killed so that his lab could be accessed and his antimatter stolen. The antimatter has massive possibilities as an energy source but due to it’s instability is highly destructive if it interacts with matter. The antimatter is only stable for 24 hours.

Langdon and the dead scientist’s adopted daughter, Vittoria Vetra, also a scientist, are then whisked to the Vatican where the antimatter has been hidden. The Illimuniati plan to allow the clock to run out, destroying the church’s spiritual home and killing the higher ranks of the church as all the cardinals are gathered in conclave to elect a new Pope. The killer taunts them, stating that he has kidnapped the four most likely candidates and will kill one every two hours, and leave their bodies in a public place, each branded with one of the Illuminati brands for one of the elements.

Langdon works out that the bodies will be left in churches along the “Path of Illumination”, a secret route that will be revealed by clues in order to guide potential Illuminati members to the group’s lair. But the path remains a mystery all these centuries later, the Illuminati base having never been discovered.

Can Langdon and Vetra crack the code and trace the path? Will they be able to save the cardinals? Can the antimatter be found and removed in time? And with the Illuminati having infiltrated the Vatican so deeply, who can they trust? And is this really the work of an ancient cult, or is there more going on?

The plot is delightfully far-fetched, and Brown keeps the action moving quickly as the story unfolds. The ticking clock aspect is an easy way to add tension, but it works and the clues all hang together, although it is stretching credibility that the clues needed, often statues, would still all be intact and in place after hundreds of years.

Langdon makes an engaging lead character, caught out of his depth and torn between exhilaration and horror. Thrown into an adventure a world away from his life as a professor, Brown ensures that the character never becomes an irritating Mary Sue, stumbling along the way and relying on luck and others in some instances. He’s given enough foibles and fears to ensure he remains sufficiently average to be an engaging hero.

The only problem is that for me the book included a few too many twists in the later stages, and while a couple work quite well, there’s a certain point where it’s almost laughable. It doesn’t help that a couple of the twists are easy to spot and for me the penny dropped several times before the big reveals.

The ending as a whole felt a little flat and too neat, with all the loose ends tied up extremely quickly, or merely ignored. Reputations have been ruined, murders committed and yet there’s a “they all lived happily ever after” vibe that doesn’t ring true.

That aside this is still a decent read, the kind of thriller you can easily lose yourself on and Brown doesn’t slow down enough for you to really appreciate the daftness of some of the plot points. Very entertaining, and good fun.

Verdict: Too many twists and some predictable turns derail it slightly in the closing stages, but for the most part Brown succeeds in crafting the kind of easy, engaging thriller that provides a fun way to pass the time. It gripped me early on and the pace meant I never lost interest. Solid. 7/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.