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Flashback
Flashback
by Dan Simmons
Edition: Hardcover

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Islamophobia makes for ugly reading, 14 May 2012
This review is from: Flashback (Hardcover)
After reading The Terror a couple of years ago, I was looking forward to reading another Dan Simmons. Despite the gushing about Hyperion and the other space operas he's written, it isn't really my cup of tea, and after picking up Carrion Comfort (too heavy for my bag)my interest was piqued when I saw that he'd turned his considerable imagination to the near future. But this is a disappointing and at times, repellent book, when Simmon's right wing politicking, racism, islamophobia, and patriotic gung-hoism gets in the way of what could have been a good thriller.

The story concerns a down and out detective, called Nick Bottom, who is a flashback junkie living in the near future. This future is a dire mess of poverty stricken former superpowers; islamic fundamentalism; terrorism as a daily occurrence; warring factions; independent states; Orwellian levels of state interference, and some rather nifty technologies like stealth copters. Flashback is a highly addictive, inhalation drug which allows the user to tap in to their own memories and re-live them in crystal clear clarity. For Nick, this means constantly revisiting a happier time when his wife was alive, six years ago (that isn't a spoiler) and before the birth of their son (now a wayward, estranged teen).

At the start of the book, Nick is hired by an outrageously rich Japanese man (in the book, Japan has become one of the predominant powers in the world) to find the person who killed his son six years ago. Nick was a policeman during the original investigation, which turned up no leads and, since that time, Nick has fallen deeper in to Flashback usage. But he takes the job, in order to get more Flashback (so he can see his wife). The Japanese businessman re-hires him because Nick is the only person to have seen all of the police documents relating to the case. Nick therefore has been hired to use flashback so he can re-read the police reports of the original investigation, because they have since been destroyed by a computer virus, find new leads and solve the case. (And along for the ride is his Japanese minder, Sato, so, narratively, Nick has someone to bounce ideas off.) As well as this, there are parallel stories of Val, Nick's estranged son, and Val's father in law, an emeritus professor, who is Val's guardian.

Now, much of the writing is good. In fact, Simmons has a knack for an action sequence and a good sense of character. His imagery can often be vivid and quite startling. But just as you are getting immersed in this world, Simmons strides in and smears a right wing diatribe all across the page, pulling you from the action and questioning the whole purpose of the book.

This reeks of one man's fear of Islam. The Caliphate has taken over the world, essentially because America and the West were too conciliatory to Islam in the early 21st century. Different cultures live among each other here, but loathe one another. it isn't made clear why racism is so prevalent, or why Nick continues to mock Japanese pronunciation (totally cringe worthy). Obama is basically to blame for the emasculation of America. The US is being invaded by a huge variety of countries. it is no longer the power it once was. Simmons is using this near future tale to highlight the dangers of Islam; to suggest attacking it is better than making peace; that we simply cannot let America be 'turned.' I don't have a problem with people having strong opinions about politics, or war, or religion, but sections here smack of a flag waving, gun toting patriot rallying the troops.

The basic plot line is interesting: it has the ingredients for a film noir-ish investigative thriller. The basic premise is a little derivative (Minority Report meets Strange Days) but there are some great, inventive twists and sequences, and his prose is so very readable. But these points don't save the book or disguise the ugliness.

I'd love to think that he wrote this book in order to spark debate about the role of religion in society, or to make a comment on technology vs religion- but i fear this is just a bit of Islamaphobia disguised as a novel- and that is hard to ignore when you're trying to enjoy what is supposed to be a thrilling story...


Beyond Black
Beyond Black
by Hilary Mantel
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.20

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars My favourite book- a masterpiece, 11 May 2012
This review is from: Beyond Black (Paperback)
Beyond Black is one of those books that really gets under your skin. It's visceral, gritty, fantastically written and full of such powerful imagery, shocks, scares and even domestic drama, that it ticks all the boxes for what a book should be.

But aside from it being labelled the greatest ghost story in the language by Phillip Pullman (well, I haven't read them all, but it has to be up there with the very, very best) it's also a very clever look at the process of writing and creativity. Mantell said herself that she sees many parallels between clairvoyance and writing: the solitary existence; dealing with characters that no-one else knows exist; seeing the world in a different way to other people...And this parallel offers even more intelligence and interest to what is a fillet steak of a book that you want to devour in one sitting.

I love it. It's one of my favourite books of all time. I keep coming back to it because it is genuinely haunting. Because the language is hypnotic; the characters so fascinating.

I'm surprised at the naysayers in the review section here. Perhaps they were looking for Wolf Hall in suburbia, or maybe a poltergeist stalking a Victorian corridor? If you're looking for that kind of thing, maybe read the Woman In Black,by Susan Hill, which is a great book, but incomparable. Beyond Black is a book that takes you by surprise. It's dark, it's creepy and it will stay with you long, long after you've finished it. That is, if you give it a chance, which you absolutely should! It's a hard book to pigeon hole (who would want to anyway?) because it's more than the sum of its parts.

If I could write as well as Mantell, then I might be able to put in to words how much I love this book, but I can't, so I'll just say - read it.


The Left Hand of God: 1/3 (Sanctuary of Redeemers series)
The Left Hand of God: 1/3 (Sanctuary of Redeemers series)
by Paul Hoffman
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars funny, violent, brilliant, 1 Mar 2012
This was one of the most thrilling, violent and wonderfully written books i have read in a long time. Hoffman managed to throw me in to a grittily realised world and follow some truly fascinating characters for 500 pages- and i could easily have read 500 more. i have rarely gone for fantasy, but this one (and the Lies of Locke Lamora) have converted me. his writing style is witty, eloquent and not densely descriptive to the point of abstraction like other fantasy books i've tried to read. this one is grounded in a reality (of sorts) and Hoffman clearly has great fun twisting our familiarities with place names and religion.

This is an insistently filmic story, and while it is a totally unique one, you wonder how such a great yarn has never been told before. Bring on the rest of the books, i'll be reading them- and so should you! (I rarely gush over books, but this one really deserves it.)


The Fire Gospel (Myths)
The Fire Gospel (Myths)
by Michel Faber
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars excellent , if a little on the slim side, 13 Jan 2012
Since reading Under The Skin a couple of years ago, I've loved Michel Faber. That book was one of the most shocking, unexpected and harrowing books I'd read for a long time - and still is - so I'm always excited at the prospect of reading a new Faber.

The The Fire Gospel is a slight book, just a couple of hundred pages, unlike the epic and excellent The Crimson Petal and The White , but he crams in some pretty big ideas, a bit of humour and a pretty damning commentary on 21st century religion.

The book opens with academic Theo Griepenkerl, an expert in ancient Aramaic, in Iraq, exploiting the chaos of the Iraqi occupation and trying to gather up as many antiquities as he can for his Canadian Museum employer.

After an explosion knocks our overweight, middle aged and slightly bumbling Theo to the ground, a statue is smashed, and Theo finds a roll of papyrus that was sealed inside. He hides them away and returns to Canada, the scrolls burning a hole in his briefcase, where he sets about translating them. As he translates, he realises he has found the memoirs of one of Jesus' contemporaries, a foul mouthed and at times incoherent man called Malchus.

The more he translates, the more he is convinced he is sitting on a gold mine, believing his translation could be a publishing phenomenon, despite being only 30 pages long. A new gospel, written at the time of Jesus' death, not some 40-60 years after his crucifixion. Theo rubs his hands with glee and set about writing the book. His determination to make money blinkers him to the potential consequences such a book could have on the world. But Theo ploughs on regardless. And it causes a few ripples, not least because of the description of Jesus begging to die while being crucified, among other sections that challenge the belief system of the church.

There are hilarious touches as Faber's minimalist prose describes Theo's bumbling journey from anonymous academic to Public Enemy Number One, not least his struggle to get published in the first place.(There are some great attacks on the publishing industry here). When he finally gets it printed, he starts a wave of outrage, religious zeal and daytime television debate that makes him squirm and panic, as it dawns on him what he has done - and it's fun to track Theo as he stumbles through a series of embarrassing events, leading to an unexpected final act.

Faber's caustic humour and satirical bent bring funny and poignant messages on the role of religion and commercialism in modern society, making this an easy to read and fun little novel. But at only 208 pages, you're left feeling a little under-fed.


Started Early, Took My Dog: (Jackson Brodie)
Started Early, Took My Dog: (Jackson Brodie)
by Kate Atkinson
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

5.0 out of 5 stars another brilliant Brodie book, 13 Jan 2012
Ever since reading Behind the Scenes at the Museum , I've loved reading Kate Atkinson. That particular novel, her debut, reminded me of Angela Carter in many ways; whimsical, funny, scathing, poignant, literary and very readable, but with less magic.

This book is the fourth detective novel she has written, that began with Case Histories, followed by One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News? and now Started Early, Took My Dog. Each has had Jackson Brodie at the centre of complex plots, with Atkinson spinning fascinating yarns about the loss of childhood, innocence and indeed, the loss of people, which our hero Brodie always finds himself looking for.

Brodie is a great hero: full of quiet dignity and quirky character traits. Atkinson enjoys using her male protagonist to highlight the slightly autistic nature of men generally; collecting things particularly. Brodie remarks of his distinctly male habit,. in a sombre tone `I often think I am doomed to collect lost children.'

His behaviour is unpredictable and he often finds himself bemused more than informed as the narratives unfold, but he has a warmth and charm, as well as a sense of humour that is rarely seen in crime detectives.

Since introducing Brodie, he has survived many escapades, not least a marriage to an actress, escaping a train crash, leaving the Edinburgh festival alive. And now, with Started Early, Took My Dog, he finds himself searching through the roots of a distant client's family tree. The client, an adopted Yorkshire girl now living in New Zealand, recruits Jackson to find out who her real parents are.

At the same time, a lonely retired police-woman finds herself in an unexpected parental role, an elderly actress finds her sanity unravelling as she struggles with her lines and the story of a murder in 1975 becomes increasingly important.

Brodie's own tragic past is never far away from the narrative; it seems every character is touched by grief, none more so than Brodie (except perhaps his ex-wife), as the first few chapters remind us, when Brodie watches snow falling on his windscreen:

"He had a sudden, unexpected memory of his sister coming into the house, laughing and shaking blossom off her clothes, out of her hair. He thought of the town they were brought up in as a place devoid of trees and yet here she was in his memory like a bride, a shower of petals like pink thumbprints on the dark veil of her hair."

This novel is about loss, about grief, about responsibility and parenthood. It is also about chance (`for want of a nail...'). It deals with big themes but in a life affirming way, never dwelling too long on the blood and gore, but delving below it to find the heart and implication of these events.

It paints a lead grey picture of northern life in the 1970's- the most haunting and stark of the sections in the book. Prawn cocktails, avocado bathrooms, heavy drinking policemen and sexism all feature highly. This bleak, poverty stricken Yorkshire is rendered with affection though, and more heart wrenching for it. Many of the characters talk of the `good old days,' though as the story progresses, the irony of this becomes more apparent.

It is also a great crime detective novel. But it feels like a disservice to describe it as such. Atkinson's novels are detective stories in the same way Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go is science fiction; the narrative is so fresh, the language so convincing and the characters so true that you forget you are entering a fictional world. The genre conventions are subverted so much, they become something totally unique.

In this one, Atkinson's narrative voice is stronger than ever, but it has never been the usual gumshoe voiceover; Atkinson inhabits her characters completely, but her voice still shines through. And it is her distinct voice that threads the complex plot together, detailing a huge variety of characters, making you question why she is spending so much time with someone who seems (only seems) incidental to the plot.

Her writing is a treat, her sentences jam-packed with imagery, but her desire to get under the skin of these characters can occasionally make you feel a little directionless; wondering what has happened to the story while you read about an ageing actress' love life. It leads to the odd slump in pace but that is a very minor qualm. Just as you get a little distracted by a character's stream of consciousness, you are lurched suddenly back in to the heart of the story and the excitement picks up again.

This book is brilliantly structured, written with poetic grace and a sense of humour that underpins the tragedy and horror. Brodie is brilliant, and such a great character that you miss him when he's not at the centre of the action (one sly nod to genre convention is the inclusion of a sidekick; the perfect partner for Brodie being a scratty dog who has some of the funniest moments in the book.)

Read this one. Or, better still; read them all, you won't regret it.


The Poisoning in the Pub: The Fethering Mysteries (Fethering Mysteries 10)
The Poisoning in the Pub: The Fethering Mysteries (Fethering Mysteries 10)
by Simon Brett
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars like a warm blanket, 13 Jan 2012
Some books keep you on the edge of your seat, thrilled, scared, intrigued. Maybe laughing you off it. And some books are like a bowl of chicken soup, or a nice walk in the park. This is the latter. And that's by no means a bad thing.

The Poisoning in the Pub is like an episode of the Archers, Rosemary and Thyme and Miss Marple all rolled in to one. With a dash of Midsomer Murders and a pinch of Hetty Wainthrop. It all adds up to a nice dose of comfort reading, that will never thrill you, but you'll feel warm and fuzzy while you are carried along by the gentle plot.

Simon Brett is prolific, clocking up over 80 whodunnits to date and I'll be reading more, given the fun I had with this one.

The story follows two middle aged neighbours, Jude and Carole, amateur sleuths, lovers of white wine, gardening and sticking their noses in to other people's business.

They are a funny two-some: one, Carole; highly strung and permanently on edge, the other, Jude; new-agey and relaxed. They both bring their own skills to the detective work, and it's enjoyable to watch it unravel.

Local landlord Ted Crisp is having a bad time. His scallops have been poisoned, a man-child has been stabbed in his kitchen and his estranged wife (not yet divorced) has suddenly arrived on the scene asking for her share of the pub. The ladies smell something fishy (eh?) and spring in to action.

It's fun. The stories are well thought out and keep the reader guessing. It probably won't leave a lasting impression but for a nice dose of nostalgia all packaged up in an easy read, you could do a lot worse. It's impossible not to be charmed by Brett's jovial and enthusiastic writing style. I've already got a few more on order for when I want to sit in the armchair, grab a blanket and wish I was a resident of an idyllic village like Fethering.


1222: 8 (Hanne Wilhelmsen)
1222: 8 (Hanne Wilhelmsen)
by Anne Holt
Edition: Hardcover
Price: 11.04

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars seriously lacking in thrills, 13 Jan 2012
1222 has a great premise: a train crashes in the Norwegian mountains, survivors trekking through a blizzard to the nearest shelter, an isolated hotel which is slowly becoming immersed in the worst weather to hit Norway in decades. The temperature drops: a murderer is on the loose. As high concept thriller ideas go, this has Hollywood gold written all over it. But it's a well trodden path; and this one is formulaic, unsympathetic and hard to engage with.

An ex-detective, Hanne Wilhelmsen is on the train, visiting a doctor for medical tests, after a bullet has left her disabled and unable to walk. Her skills as a detective are hinted at, though these, sadly, are never actually demonstrated.

It quickly becomes apparent that this is an open homage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. I wasn't a fan of that book , see my review here, and 50 pages in, it was obvious how Anne Holt's book was going to unfold.

Holt fails to ramp up the tension, bizarrely spending significant portions of the book with the main characters eating, Hanne being vague and moody and the narrative constantly interrupted by the ramblings of a dwarf doctor. There is little detection, beyond Hanne writing a few names on a piece of paper, screwing it up and frowning. This quickly wears thin.

Red herrings are a necessity in crime thrillers, but in this novel you can see them coming a long way down the track. The snow and the weather are described in exciting language, but the characterisation is limited and you really don't care what happens to this assortment of lightly-sketched characters.

This novel is one of many by Anne Holt that follows Hanne Wilehelmsen's police detective, though this is the first one translated for UK. This perhaps explains the lack of back story, the underdeveloped lead character, the lack of explanation for her behaviour. Perhaps this is something the publishers should have thought about; it's all very well giving someone a novel to read, but with so much assumed knowledge, perhaps they should have translated these in the right order.

Rarely is there tension or dread in the novel, so in that sense, it references Agatha Christie well. I'd have liked to see the detective in peril, but it never happens. Aside from running out of good food, and waiting two days to be `rescued' from their comfortable hotel, there is little to worry about.

The murders feel like minor incidents. You are simply informed that someone is dead (gosh, another one), with little build up or suspense and the reveal is disappointingly reminiscent of Murder She Wrote.

No suspense, no great characters to root for and an uninspired series of murders- pretty tragic for a crime thriller.


I'm Not Scared
I'm Not Scared
by Niccolo Ammaniti
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.67

5.0 out of 5 stars what a book, 13 Jan 2012
This review is from: I'm Not Scared (Paperback)
It's a taught, tightly plotted thriller, set in the sweltering heat of a small Italian village, where dogs laze in the shade, the smell of ragu wafts through open doorways and the restless village children ride around on their bicycles getting up to mischief.

The story is narrated by nine year old Michele, who is a member of a little gang of kids who scuffle, dare each other, play practical jokes and ride through the lush, golden countryside, trying to keep themselves entertained in rural southern Italy.

Michele makes a shocking discovery during one of their adventures, which is the catalyst for a series of events that leaves an indelible mark on Michele, his family and the village.

Ammaniti's writing is so assured that he inhabits the nine year old Michele effortlessly. It never feels like he is feigning the thoughts of a young boy, nor is it ever condescending. It rings true with every sentence. And because of the strength of the narrative, the reader is put in a position of authority; Ammaniti allows you to understand the full implications of what is happening before Michele does, making his slow realisation incredibly tense and riveting, as you urge him to put the puzzle together.

The writing style perfectly reflects the nine year old Michele's view of the world; his awe with new experiences; his wild imagination controlling his fears and actions; the confusion and lack of understanding when confronted with adult behaviour.

The adults here have an intriguing presence in the book. To Michele, they are the people who shout and argue, who do things he cannot understand. But even as Michele is left bewildered by encounters with adults, the reader is able to glean little tit-bits of information that help piece together the mystery.

This is more than a mystery though. It is an amazing look at the impact our formative experiences have on us. How huge the world is, how frightening and confusing it can be. It paints a fascinating picture of family life and the influence of adult behaviour on impressionable youths.

Without too much gushing- and for fear of giving away any plot details, I'll end by saying this is a profound story, brilliantly written. It is such a great book that you'll read it urgently to find out what happens, only to be sorry when it's all over.


The Whisperer
The Whisperer
by Donato Carrisi
Edition: Paperback
Price: 5.59

4.0 out of 5 stars tense, terrifying and a great page turner, 13 Jan 2012
This review is from: The Whisperer (Paperback)
After finishing The Whisperer, the first thing I did was go straight back to the beginning and look for the clues dotted throughout this twisting and turning crime thriller. It not only gripped, it had me glued to the pages. The nigh-on 500 pages flew by pretty quickly, as I was desperate to know the who, what, when where and, most importantly, how the story would unfold.

This is a riveting debut from Donato Carrisi, a criminologist who has a disturbingly detailed understanding of the mind of a murderer. It is his expertise, paired with an excellent sense of pace that keeps this thriller on the right track throughout. It's a pretty graphic novel in places, but, unlike the majority of Hostel-lite crime fiction out there (you know the ones: covers that show blood stains in a bathroom sink; an ominous picture of a freshly dug grave; a broken doll) this is not gratuitous. Carassi knows his subject matter is gruesome, so he plays it down, where possible, letting the reader's imagination fill in many of the horrific details.

The story begins with the discovery of six severed children's arms in a forest clearing. A special unit is dispatched to work on the case, including out two protagonists: Goran Gavila, a well-renowned criminologist, and Mila Vasquez, a policewoman with a troubled past, who is an expert in finding missing children.

The setting is purposefully anonymous. Though this is written by an Italian, the overall feel is one of an American police department. However, this lack of a clear `place' makes the locations all the more haunting, and without a preconception as to how these places should look, they become more mythic, more gothic, and all the more terrifying.

The investigation leads them down many creepy avenues, where we meet paedophiles, get an understanding of what makes a serial killer tick and where we understand the effect these killings have on the policemen and women assigned to solve the case.

It poses interesting questions about the evil lurking inside everyone:

" She concluded that good and evil are often jumbled up. That one is sometimes the instrument of the other and vice versa."

And it's overall analysis of what constitutes evil makes for scary, and at times terrifying, reading.

The cover states that this book is an `Italian Literary phenomenon' and it was `the most eagerly awaited thriller in the world.' While this marketing spiel makes it clear that this a fine read, and well above the average rime thriller, it is hard to see this as `literary.' The language is solid; there is some great imagery and the characterisation is strong, despite a large cast, but the structure is nothing new.

This is an excellent police procedural novel, but it does nothing new. It doesn't push the boundaries of language in any way, but then again, it doesn't need to. The author can't be blamed for the way his book has been marketed. (Though the fact that it won a host of literary awards in Italy still comes a bit of a surprise)

But, despite book covers often never delivering on the promise of the story, the twists and turns are great. (I'll say no more...)

If you want a great holiday read, curl up under your sun lounger with this one and you won't be disappointed. There were a few times, reading this one alone in the house (cliché I know) that I found myself closing the curtains and putting on the radio. It really does thrill. But if you're looking for literary crime fiction, Kate Atkinson is more on the money.

(This could be an excellent film- think David Fincher's Zodiac, with a bit of Silence of the Lambs.)


Sister
Sister
by Rosamund Lupton
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.00

3.0 out of 5 stars raw, emotional stuff, but very well written, 13 Jan 2012
This review is from: Sister (Paperback)
There was something that niggled at me on finishing Sister. It took me a while to figure out what it was. It wasn't the writing style; Rosamund Lupton has a rich and varied way with emotional description. It wasn't the plot, which zips along and rarely loses pace. Nor was it the main characters, who are fully realised, real people, idiosyncratic and imperfect. No, it was none of that. It was the sheer volume of grief in this book. To say it is overwrought is unfair. But by the end, I was a bit exhausted by the amount of confessional, grief-laden monologuing.

The story begins with the protagonist, Beatrice, writing a letter to her sister, Tess, and trying to piece together the events surrounding her death. Beatrice begins investigating Tess' death, convinced her sister was murdered. The more she uncovers about her sister's life, the more people she suspects, but as her obsessive detection continues, Beatrice finds it increasingly hard to be taken seriously by the police and her family.

Lupton manages to describe the bond between sisters brilliantly; the minutiae of their lives, their shared experiences, that has always kept them close. The differences in the two make the relationship all the more powerful. Tess is the most vivid character in the book, a whirlwind of artistic creativity, impulse and kindness. Beatrice on the other hand, is safe, organised and closed off.

The investigation works on two levels here. Beatrice is not only trying to understand how and why her sister died, but she is also investigating her own life, figuring out gradually, in a cloud of grief, the mistakes she has made.

Grief, as you'd expect, drives the plot. Not a page goes by where Beatrice doesn't opine about the loss she feels. There are moments of real poignancy and grief is a character in this book. But, though it is described in beautiful language, it is relentless. Beatrice is so subsumed with grief that it defines her and everything she does, which you would expect, but halfway through, there was nothing new to say about the level of grief she was facing. Everything had already been explained and it felt like retreading old ground- delaying rather than benefiting the plot.

(There were a couple of other specific areas of the book that I would love to talk about, but I don't want to give away the plot, so I'll sit on my hands for a moment.)

Sister paints a vivid and powerful picture of sibling love. It charts in detail the stages of grief and the very raw emotions they engender and while it is successful in so many ways, the grief became a barrier, preventing me from engaging with the plot and leaving me, well, exhausted.

I don't want to do this book a disservice; it is finely written and an interesting story, better than 95% of the torture porn crime fiction out there. I do recommend it, just be sure to have some Calvin and Hobbes to hand when you need a bit of light relief.


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