Category Archives: Books

Book reviews.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book review

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo book

I literally just finished reading this after a five hour stint on the couch. This doesn’t happen much to me these days but if you have read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo you will probably understand why. If you have and don’t then there is something wrong with either your excitement gland or you have the attention span of a hyperactive child on caffeine.

At first glance, the plot is nothing great or particularly novel. A journalist gets hired to investigate the disappearance of a girl four decades previous. The hirer is a likeable old multimillionaire industrialist who is her uncle. The journalist is called Mikael Blomqvist and he is in a certain amount of strife in the city so he agrees to investigate in the country town where the girl and the industrialist lived/live. He also hires a quirky emo genius girl called Lisbeth Salander who has a dragon tattoo. As they investigate the disappearance, they surprisingly make headway into what they thought was a pointless exercise. Then bad things start to happen. That’s all I can say without giving anything away.

I’m probably not alone in having seen The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo everywhere I go and as I rather pathetically consider myself to be both an individual and a literary type, I wasn’t all that bothered. I have been stung by the dullness of zeitgeist novels like Zadie Smith’s White Teeth and thought I would stick to what I know. I also don’t read much crime fiction. My parents then handed me a copy of this and said it was brilliant. So I gave it a go and like lots of other reviewers ‘was hooked’ and ‘couldn’t put it down’ and found it was ‘a real page turner’. Horrendous though these cliches are, they were true with this book. It was really fucking ‘gripping’.

At first, the book is a bit slow. All the stuff that happens at first though, is necessary for the plot. When the tale begins to gather pace it is a slow but incessant rise in tension. The story, as it is revealed, is a shocking yet believable one. What truly sets this book apart however, is the characters. In particular Blomqvist and Salander. Larsson slowly builds their characterisation and reveals more about them as the story develops. Like most good books, the plot is driven by these strong characters and how they react to what is happening. It is because of these superb characters that I am so looking forward to reading the sequel.

Which I will be doing in a few minutes.

That in itself should show you how much I liked the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Like every other sheep on the tube, I will be glued to this series until I finish the trilogy. As I said, I’m not much of a crime/thriller fan but this really is as good as everyone says. Jump on the bandwagon and join us.

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The City and The City by China Mieville

The City and The CityThe City and The City is a unique and fascinating book. Plus it is a good one.

Set in the fictional Eastern European city of Besz it follows a policeman as he tries to work out who killed a young woman found on an estate. Having spent time in Eastern European cities, Mieville’s description of the run down city slowly emerging from the shadow of being Eastern Bloc, is spot on. Trams rattle, the internet is slow, there are lots of hookers and drinking and so on. As Inspect Borlu chases down his suspects the scope of what is going on expands and we soon realise that Nationalists, fascists, politicians and even worse may be involved.

So far, so fairly standard.

The City and The City is a book with a highly original setting, however. The clue is in the title. There is another city that Borlu visits called Ul Qoma. Ul Qoma happens to be in exactly the same place as the city Besz and has it’s own populace and fashions and phone numbers and brands of tea bag. Some parts of the city exist purely in Besz and others in Ul Qoma. Other parts are cross-hatched and citizens walk by one another or drive round each other’s traffic without acknowledging the other’s existence. They are all conditioned since birth to ‘unsee’ the other city and its denizens since birth. If they break this law and notice the buildings or populace or even worse, walk into sections that belong to the other city, they get in shit with a powerful entity/entities known as the Breach. The Breach makes people disappear or die or various other states and is a fast shadowy presence that pretty much kicks ass.

I know it sounds a bit weird but it actually works quite well and becomes almost believable. By the time that Borlu travels from Besz through the one permissable check-point to Ul Qoma and unconsciously notes that he is technically near his flat but is actually in a foreign city, you don’t bat an eyelid. Soon he becomes more involved in the Breach and the even more mysterious Orciny.

I really enjoyed this book but it didn’t quite do it for me. Apart from Borlu, all the characters seemed a bit flat. It is very well written but for reasons I can’t go into, the book didn’t quite go in the direction I wanted it to. The cities occupying the same place idea was actually pretty cool and well explained – to a point. I then found myself with a few questions that hadn’t been satisfactorily answered and I don’t think it was because Mieville was being purposefully enigmatic. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the book but on reflection wanted something slightly different.

The City and The City has won numerous awards though, so it obviously completely satisfied some. It is good, atmospheric, clever, Kafka-esque, and so forth, but didn’t quite tick all my boxes. Maybe it will yours – there isn’t much out there like this, so you should give it a try.

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Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Can I get through a whole review of Pirate Latitudes without resorting to spouting pirate cliches? No shivver me timbers I can’t Jim lad. There, got that out of the way.

This is Michael Chrichton’s last ever book. Which is incredibly sad because he was a great author. Not one to settle on any genre, he has tackled dinosaur parks, the medical world, the aeroplane industry, the environment, vikings, pirates, and more. He is consistently fun to read. This book was found on his laptop after he died, which always makes me a bit wary. Was it finished properly? Why didn’t he send it out?

Pirate Latitudes is about pirates. Of the Caribbean. Had to word that carefully. It follows the adventures of the privateer Captain Charles Hunter as he has a series of what can only be described as ‘rip-roaring’ adventures. The core of the novel is his attack on a fortress called Matanceros in order to nick a Spanish treasure galleon moored under its protection. The fortress is predictably impregnable. Almost.

The book reads like a fun, shallow series of adventures. Every pirate adventure cliche is present, it is almost as if he wrote a list. Rough rogue Captain leads a plucky crew and does the following (tick the pirate story boxes): climbs cliffs, blows up strongholds, has duels, sleeps with whores, has sea battles, gets thrown in a dungeon, fights cannibals, is attacked by a kraken, and lots more. I didn’t give away any more of the plot than is on the cover. Plus it doesn’t matter. Think of this book as an old fashioned periodical adventure series, like Flash Gordon or the basis behind Indiana Jones. If you approach in that frame of mind you won’t be disappointed.

With the above mindset, you can forgive the cliches. And it is very cliched and formulaic. His crew, especially when he recruits them, is like those you would find in a cheesy film. The ones where a leader goes through a load of dossiers and finds one that can fly a helicopter and is good at knife-fighting, another that is a brilliant hacker, and so on. In this: the Jew, aka, Black Eye, is brilliant with explosives. Enders is a brilliant surgeon and one of the best helmsman around. Lazue is a feisty woman fighter who has brilliant eyesight. Bassa ‘The Moor’ is a huge strong black guy with no tongue. All a bit familiar but it really doesn’t matter in a story like this. Look at the Nazi in Raiders of the Lost Arc, or Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon, or anyone in a Bond film.

So is Pirate Latitudes any good? Yes. Not brilliant, but fun. It’s an action adventure about pirates for fuck’s sake, what were you expecting? It is harmless escapism, with lots of narrow escapes and cliffhangers. It is a bit cliched (a word I have used a lot in this review) but that is utterly irrelevant as the book is well-written in a page-turning thriller kind of way. If you want more realistic sea adventures – look at the superb Patrick O’Brian. If you want a rip-roaring pirate tale in the vein of Treasure Island, look no further. Me hearties.

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The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Cormac McCarthy - The RoadA man called “Man” and a boy called “Boy” walk down a road called “The Road”. Ok those aren’t literally their names, they just don’t seem to have any. On purpose. McCarthy wants the story to be about people as opposed to characters. People struggling to survive in a world that’s fucked. Everything is dead, burnt and smouldering. There is also no indication what caused this apocalypse, it is just enough to know that absolutely nothing lives. Not even fish or cockroaches as far as I could tell. This bothered me a bit because it seemed pretty impossible but again, it is about the journey and humanity and so on.

I really liked this book although I don’t think it necessarily deserved a Pulitzer. It’s not up there with The Old Man and the Sea or The Color Purple but it is really good. It stuck in my mind for several days after, which is always a good sign.

There are a few things that might bug you though. The conversation is without quote marks and is usually just a string of fairly repetitive short sentences. The fact that it is cold and ashy is a bit bludgeoned into you by dint of it being mentioned every few sentences. The man and boy are heading south to avoid another winter but why didn’t they just leave in the spring? On bicycles?

These finicky issues aside, the Road is a superb and haunting book. Whenever they meet other people, there are some genuine moments of horror (as most people have turned to cannibalism), and you see how far someone will go for someone they care about. It is at moments of strife that the real characterisation of the protagonists occurs and this is well done. These moments are fairly few and far between but that just adds to the suspense.

The book is fairly grim and bleak – as I’m sure was fully intended – and you really get sucked into this grey depressing world. Think England in February but with no people. It is ultimately about redemption and the nature of humanity when everything else has been stripped away. Turns out humanity sucks.

As I said, I liked it. It is best read in a single sitting or two, which is easily done, to allow yourself to get fully drawn in. The descriptions are vivid and the story and images will lurk in your subconscious like the memories of a grim walk on a cold and cloudy day in Slough for days afterward. Definitely worth a read. Unless you are a depressive.

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Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett

I’m a huge Terry Pratchett fan and have been since I saw The Colour of Magic for sale when I was about 11 and bought it because of the cover. I’m not a fan of football however, so I was a bit concerned about this latest offering.

I need not have worried, for as it states on the back: ‘The thing about football – the important thing about football -is that it is not just about football.‘ This book is not just about football. In fact, the only real football match in the book occurs right at the end and by that point you are so wrapped up in the characters, plot, and sub-plot, that you are actually looking forward to the match just to see what happens. A bit like Escape to Victory. But without Stallone and likeable people (and others).

The principle protagonists are a mysterious but highly intelligent goblin called Nutt, a jack-the-lad son of a footballer called Trev Likely, a hot but dim supermodel type called Juliet, a strong willed lady-chef called Glenda, and loads of wizards. Plus an ape.

It turns out that the Unseen University (where the wizards go) must play a game of football every twenty years or they lose a ton of funding from a vaguely eccentric dead benefactor. So that’s the plot.

As with most of Pratchett’s books, the plot is there to drive the story along but the main thing that keeps you glued to the pages are the numerous sub-plots and characters. Nutt undergoes a change and you learn more about him as he learns himself. Trev promised his mum not to play football but you kind of know he’s going to. How will things work out between Trev and Juliet? Is Juliet going to follow her dream of being a model – even if it means wearing a fake beard and pretending to be a female dwarf? And so on. Distinct and unique likeable characters are a forte of Pratchett’s and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here.

The wizards feature heavily in this book and that is always a good thing. Even if you haven’t read a discworld book before you’ll like them. If you are a regular reader, you’ll know what to expect. Rincewind, the luggage, and the librarian appear too (just as cameos), as you can see on the cover. If you are a fan, you also really get a sense of the city developing – with the clacks, the post, the bank, newspapers and so on. If you aren’t, then it really doesn’t matter – welcome to Ankh Morpork: a fully realized and living city (clearly based on London). Enjoy.

It’s difficult to grade Pratchett’s books as, like Douglas Adams, they are in a league of their own (no pun intended here). If you look on Amazon, nearly all his books are 4-5 stars. Which doesn’t help if you are new to Pratchett and want to read a better one. This book is great. Not up there with his top 5% perhaps – Guards! Guards!, Mort, Feet of Clay, being some personal favorites – but just below that. Better than most but not the very best. If that helps.

If you are new to Pratchett – enjoy, this book is a treat and you have sooo many more ahead of you. If you’re an old hand – just enjoy, this is one of his better ones.

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The Space Merchants by Frederik Pohl & Cyril M. Kornbluth

The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth

The Space Merchants by Pohl & Kornbluth

This book is a gem. It was written over 50 years ago but deals with topics still relevant today.

The story is about a star-class copysmith Mitch Courteney who works for Schocken Associates, one of the two main advertising agencies in the world. This is a pretty elite position to be in as the world, including governments, is ruled by advertising. It’s capitalism gone maaaaad! To be a good citizen you have to be a good consumer, which is actually pretty easy for most I would imagine. The baddies are known as ‘Consies’ who are essentially environmentalists.

When Mitch gets the job of trying to make Venus sound like an attractive place to be he suddenly finds himself up against both the Consies and an evil rival ad agency. He then starts to learn all about the world.

I loved this book. Sure some of the writing feels a tiny bit dated but it is chock-full of good ideas and characters. There’s even a womanising, heavy drinking, dwarf astronaut. Mitch Courteney himself is a pretty unrepentant bastard when we first meet him but he slowly changes when people start to do him over and the reality of how others live dawns on him.

I would highly recommend this. It’s a cracking read set at a furious pace. Buy it now! It’s a classic.

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And Another Thing… by Eoin Colfer

And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer

And Another Thing... by Eoin Colfer

Let me state this first: I am a massive Hitchhiker fan. Not to the point where it becomes sad-loner going to a convention level, but damn close – I’ll probably take my wife. I first read the initial trilogy when I ten and Life, the Universe and everything had just been published. I immediately wanted to become a writer and started to write my first ever novel right then. I still have it at my parents house.

I have since read everything Douglas Adams has written. Several times.

So when I first heard that a new Hitchhiker book was being written I was initially excited. Then I thought about it and started to worry. How would someone go about this? Try and mimic Adams exactly? Surely that wouldn’t work, as he had such a unique voice. Try their own style? Too distinct and it would hardly be book six, more an adventure ‘in the world of Hitchhikers’. I was concerned.

Unbelievably, in my humble opinion, Eoin Colfer somehow managed to get it pretty spot on. It feels like a continuation of the series but is clearly not written by Adams.

The characters are well done and are the people (and aliens) we all know and love. Arthur Dent, with his quintessential English-ness and obsession with tea and baths, was pretty much modeled on Adams himself. Colfer wisely moves him from the centre of attention. Most of the main protagonists seem to share the limelight fairly equally with perhaps Zaphod Beeblebrox edging slightly ahead. Which is never a bad thing. The original trilogy didn’t really flesh out the characters much and it never really felt all that necessary. The latter two had a bit more characterization but not as much as this.

The original books were more about character types progressing through a series of adventures and ideas. This is more about the characters. Fortunately they are all familiar and enjoyable characters. In addition to the usual cast of Arthur, Ford, Trillian, we have Random Dent (who first appeared in Mostly Harmless), Thor (yes the god who appeared in The Long Dark Teatime of the Soul and Norse mythology), Wowbagger the infinitely prolonged (that guy who accidentally became immortal and is now trying to insult the universe in alphabetical order), and a load more. They are all good.

It is here that I noticed the biggest difference. Colfer spends a lot more time on the characters and description of places than Adams ever did. Consequently the pace feels slower. Mr Colfer is a great writer so this never feels too detrimental to the book but you get the feeling that if Douglas Adams had written the same sequence of events it would have comprised about half the number of pages with no loss.

Another difference is that the original felt a lot more philosophical. It had a lot more epic ideas dealing with, for example, life the universe and everything. The scope felt bigger somehow. And Another Thing… follows a lot more of a linear narrative without so many of the huge ideas tackled in the originals. Taken as an episode, this doesn’t matter all that much, it just felt different.

The book is thankfully, very funny. There are some genuinely laugh out loud moments and by that I mean I actually laughed out loud – as opposed to an internet buffoon in a forum typing LOL each they come across something mildly amusing. As I stated above, Mr Colfer is a great writer and fortunately, he is also a funny one. The little asides as the ‘Guide’ interrupts the narratives are there although at times they veer dangerously close to being slightly formulaic and this was never the case with the original. They never quite cross that line though, and are generally amusing and add to the novel.

So was I disappointed? No. Not at all. This is a superb book. Not as good as the originals, but I guess I was always going to say that. As an episode of Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy it works well. It is just a bit different. The difference is that between an awesomely funny philosopher/sci-fi writer (Adams) and a more modern but almost as funny sci-fi writer. It is not quite as good or far reaching as the originals but it is certainly a welcome addition to the series. The title is apt. Highly recommended.

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The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

The Lost SymbolI finished this a few days ago and have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It is just a shame that I don’t really think it is that great a book. This puts me in something of a quandary on how to review it.

The story follows Robert Langdon, the hero of Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code, as he has yet another crap time. He is asked to give a lecture in the Capitol building in Washington by an old friend called Peter Solomon, who is in charge of the Smithsonian and a mega uber-lord in the Freemasons. It turns out to be a trick and soon Solomon’s severed hand is discovered in the Capitol’s central room freshly tattooed with lots of intriguing symbols. Symbols that can luckily be deciphered by Robert Langdon. A quest is then started plus lots of chases. There then follows history lecture, action, cliffhanger, history lecture, action, cliffhanger – until the end of the book (where there’s a great big history lecture).

First – the positive. The book is very, very readable and exciting. The technique of short chapters ending with a cliffhanger really works in thrillers like these. Hours of my life sped by as I lay on the couch reading and thinking, fuck it, just one more chapter. The ideas and history lectures and conspiracy stuff is genuinely fascinating and the book is worth reading for this alone. I learnt tons about the masons and religions by reading this and I know tons already. It also makes Washington seem a lot more interesting than I had previously believed it to be. As Langdon rushes about and the bad guy grows increasingly more mental, you are educated and thrilled in equal measure. The bits about the Freemasons and Washington’s history (both the place and the person) are great but Brown does go on a bit to prove his point. In one scene he even gives a character (and the reader) the exact search phrase to type into google. The puzzles are all printed and make it all seem a bit more fun as you see if you can work things out – but probably won’t bother.

Now the negative. The writing is pretty poor. It serves its purpose though and doesn’t really matter – you’re not going to be reading this sort of thing for finely written prose after all. The characters are astoundingly wooden stereotypes. Langdon is a professor who wears professor-ish clothes and spends every moment not being chased delivering a lecture. Peter Solomon is a powerful man and is head of powerful things and has powerful friends. The bad guy is like a lot of villains in Brown’s books – a less believable and more extreme version of your average Bond nemesis. This time, instead of an albino or killer monk, we have a heavily muscled bald eunuch who is covered in tattoos.  There are a few other characters that seem to fill roles but have no real personality: an elderly African American who is wise and is the Architect of the Capitol (a job position not literally the architect) who made me think of Morgan Freeman for some reason; Solomon’s sister – pretty and clever and frequently in distress; a Japanese CIA chick who smokes a lot; a wise blind priest who is very wise; and so on. Again, the characterization doesn’t matter but it would have been nice.

The plot and some of the ideas in the book were ridiculous. I can’t tell you much without giving the plot away but once I learned what were they searching for, I guessed its location immediately. I read the entire book hoping to be proved wrong but my guess was correct. A guess I made in the first 30 minutes. Solomon’s sister Katherine is a Noetic “scientist” who believes in the potential of the human mind – basically, psychic ability. I suspect Dan Brown spoke to some Noetic “scientists” and got sold on the idea. The reason why I keep using inverted commas is that no matter what Dan Brown says – it isn’t science. They don’t use scientific method and none of their results are open to peer review. Brown seems to think people are sceptical about noetics as they are closed minded. It is more because the evidence is shite. He keeps mentioning that one day everyone will believe and be proved wrong about Noetics and frequently points out that the brightest minds believed that the earth was flat until relatively recently. It is a shame he didn’t research this because it’s horseshit and a myth that stems from the early 19th century. Most of humanity has known the earth is a globe since the ancient Greeks. Aristotle even provided visual evidence. They clearly didn’t believe that boats going over the horizon were falling off the edge of the world because most of the time the boats came back.

Brown tries to prove noetics further by stating that prayer groups have had a measurable affect on curing people and that experiments have been done to see this. There have in fact been some experiments done on this subject and they were done under proper scientific conditions with ‘blind’ test groups and so on. It proved that there was absolutely nothing in it. There are other experiments he mentions but nearly all have been done before and all proved false. I won’t go into any more detail here.

I apologize for this rant about noetics but it proves to be a central theme throughout the book and I found it ludicrous.

There are other scenes that are laughable too. Right at the very start some agents are chasing the big bald tanned baddie and stop to ask a big tanned guy with blonde hair if they saw anyone run past. ‘He went that-a-way’ the guy says. I mean, for fuck’s sake. Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny might be able to slap on a moustache and get away with this but really…

Also, when you find out what the villain is after and how his whole plan has been plotted you find your brain filling with question that start with “So why didn’t he just…” Annoying.

On the whole though, the book is fun with lots of codes and facts printed so that you the reader can try and work things out. You will be looking up a lot of things on google and it starts to feel almost interactive in places. The pace is relentless and exciting. You will probably enjoy reading it but when finished you will think – that was alright I guess. If I was to give a one sentence recommendation it would be: “If you liked Dan Brown’s other books, you will like this.” Just not as much as The Da Vinci Code.

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A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K Dick

The story follows a group of drug users in California in the far-off year of 1994. Actually, the date doesn’t really matter, the book is barely science fiction. The futuristic setting (for when it was written) is simply a device to allow for a drug that doesn’t exist and new techniques for undercover cops.

Anyway, the main protagonist is a druggie called Bob Arctor who is actually an undercover narcotics agent called Agent Fred. Arctor, like his friends, takes a drug called ‘Substance D’ (or Substance Death) and he slowly finds himself addicted. Substance D causes the two hemispheres of the to ‘disconnect’ leading initially to confusion and disorientation and ultimately to brain damage. A bit like Jaegermeister.

All narcotics officers keep their identities secret from everyone, including the police, so when Agent Fred goes to where he can view the surveillance footage of his/Arctor’s and his mates’ house he has to wear a mask (that flashes hundreds of different faces across it every minute, which is cool). As Arctor gets more involved in the drug world he becomes addicted to Substance D. His brain hemispheres lose connection and he grows ever more paranoid and confused. As his brain splits – so do his two personalities. Agent Fred starts to grow more and more convinced that Arctor is a major player in the drug world. He starts to investigate himself…

Philip K Dick is one of my all-time favourite authors and A Scanner Darkly is one of my all-time favourite books. The book is primarily about drug addiction and self-identity. Philip K Dick took an unbelievable amount of drugs in his time and also lost a lot of friends to addiction. He knows what he is talking about. There are some very humorous and very authentic stoner conversations. There is a guy who is convinced he is covered in bugs and they are starting to spread. One guy tries to kill himself by overdosing but it goes wrong and he descends into a trip where a multiple-eyed being from another dimension reads him his sins for all eternity – after 11,000 years the being finally reaches where he discovers masturbation.

Dick’s books generally deal with the themes of what is real, what makes us human, identity and perception. He’s one of the finest examples of the science fiction genre that I like. I have a friend that refuses to read science fiction that was written after 1980 as he claims that older sci fi was more about ideas and philosophy. Dick is one of his favorite authors as well.

A Scanner Darkly is funny, thought-provoking and ultimately, sad. It is one of the few books I have read where I actually sat for a few moments after finishing thinking wow. Just writing this review makes me want to read it again. Don’t see the film and be done (I haven’t actually seen it) – give this a go.

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Azincourt by Bernard Cornwell

Azincourt-final_lgI love Bernard Cornwell’s books. People who know me frequently reel back in awe of my historical knowledge. At least I assume that’s what they’re reeling back from. This knowledge is largely due to authors like Cornwell, George MacDonald Fraser, Simon Scarrow, Patrick O’Brian and numerous others. I love writers that can bring a time period alive while still remaining accurate. Azincourt is one such book – it even has historians praising it in the cover review section. Cornwell is without a doubt the acknowledged historical fiction master and this is pretty masterful stuff.

By the way, just in case you didn’t know, Azincourt is how the place is spelt in France. The British have been mis-spelling it for 600 years.

You’re reeling already aren’t you?

Nearly everything I knew about Agincourt/Azincourt came from Shakespeare’s Henry V. A weakened English/Welsh army ends a war campaign in France and is trapped on its way home by an army of vastly superior numbers. About 6000 disease ridden British troops against 30,000 fresh and healthy Frenchmen. You can probably guess who won. If this was fiction you’d cry ‘Bollocks!’

Cornwell’s genius is letting you see accurately described battles from the point of view of the common soldier. You are in the lines with the common troops. Plus they are really gory and violent, which is always a bonus. Some people have complained about this, particularly with this book, but some people are stupid. The title of the book is a famous battle. The fact that it is violent should be a given. You can vivdly imagine how horrendous the conditions were as the troops literally shit their pants and get their limbs cut off, eyes gounged out and at one point – manhoods sliced off and fed to them. People complain the world is in a right old state now but it really, really sucked back then.

If you’re the sort of person inclined to read this sort of thing, you are probably already aware of the outcome. As with most of Cornwell’s stuff, it doesn’t really matter. You like (or loathe) the vivid main characters and will be eager to see what happens next. The plot will seem fairly familiar if you read a lot of his books but I personally didn’t find it detrimental. I still wanted to see how it all panned out. You will too. Trust me in this.

I loved Azincourt and also enjoyed the fact that it is a one-off. Cornwell tends to write epic series of books and as I’m in the middle of three others it was a relief not to get into another. If you like spot-on history, relentless action, brutal battles, and powerful characters reacting against a background of events that shocked the medieval world, you will like this too. If not, I hear Bridget Jones is quite good.

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Halting State by Charles Stross

halting_state_large_UKHalting State by Charles Stross is set in the not too distant future. Scotland has devolved (in a political not Darwinian sense), gained independence, and the world is even more saturated with information technology and computer nerdiness than ever before. In an online game a load of orcs and a dragon rob a bank and nick a load of magic swords and armour and amulets and other valuable goodies.

At first you’d probably agree with one of the protagonists in thinking ‘So what, it’s a game’ but in fact the theft spells almost certain doom for the computer company that hosts the bank in the virtual game. As in life now, with games like World of Warcraft, these magical items go on sale for quite surprising money on auction sites. More importantly though, if people lose faith in the game a multi-million company can go down the crapper. These games are big money.

So that’s the plot. The start of it at least. As the Halting State goes on the stakes get increasingly higher as things develop. Western civilisation is at threat and people start to die. There are spies and assassinations and advanced technology and thrills aplenty.

The novel would score quite high on the nerd scale if there was such a thing. A Warp Factor 8.5 perhaps. It is full of computer techno/gamespeak. Being a bit of a spod myself, I was ok with the game stuff like MMORPG (Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game in case you care) but got a bit lost, and to be honest, mildly annoyed for the first couple of chapters with the sheer amount of ‘don’t I know a lot of acronyms’ and general geekness. Stross is doing this on purpose but it can be frustrating.

Another thing I thought might be annoying is the fact that all of Halting State is told in the ‘stream of consciousness’ style like the classic As I lay dying by William Faulkner (a bit boring) and the even more classic The Stud by Jackie Collins (a bit daft). In case you aren’t familiar with these literary gems – each chapter has a character’s name and it is told by that person. It doesn’t prove much of a problem here except occasionally for a Scots accent used by the police character. Which is done phonetically and unnecessarily and why I can’t be bothered to read Trainspotting. Stross can just say that the character has a Scots accent and then write normally. I can imagine the rest. It’s pretty rare here, so don’t worry.

Even more uniquely, the tale is told in the second person present. “You walk in a room” and “you are reading a superb review” sort of a thing. Initially my heart sank when I read this as I thought it would piss me off but I actually got quite into it. It really draws you in. I’m assuming that it is supposed to blur the boundaries between a classic writing style and games such as Dungeons and Dragons or the superb ‘choose your own adventure’ Fighting Fantasy books by Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. Which were immensely popular with sad lonely types in the 80s when I was at school. (Deathtrap Dungeon rules by the way.)

I won’t give anything away, but while I found Halting State incredibly fun, witty, entertaining and exciting, it didn’t quite live up to what I had hoped. It felt slightly lacking by the end. I don’t know what I was expecting but it didn’t quite deliver.

It’s still worth a go though. You might like it. As I said, it’s fun if you’re a bit of geek and well written. Charles Stross is always good value.

“You are clicking on Amazon…”

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Ringworld by Larry Niven

RingworldRingworld by Larry Niven is a classic science fiction book. In fact, It is such a classic that until recently I had assumed I had already read it. I think I got confused with other books featuring Dyson Spheres or possibly Harry Harrison’s Wheelworld (Book 2 of this great series). But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Ringworld starts with a cool 200 year old Oriental guy called Louis Wu bar hopping his way west around the planet. He uses teleportation devices like those in Star Trek that instantly beam him 100s of miles in a millisecond. His ‘cool credentials’ are established when we learn that he is doing this to extend his birthday celebrations and as midnight approaches he travels a few hundred miles west to get another few hours drinking time.

His bar/city crawl is interrupted when he is diverted and recruited by an alien called Nessus who is a Pierson’s Puppeteer. These creatures are highly advanced cowards who have two heads but one brain (just read it). Louis is shown photos of a structure that looks like a giant ring around a distant star and is hired to join Nessus in investigating it. They also recruit a violent, giant cat-like creature called ‘Speaker-to-animals’ – a name that is more of a description of its job as ambassador to human-kind than an actual name, and an uber-hot woman called Teela Brown who has been bred to be lucky.

This might all sound a bit far out – and it is. It is also kind of believable and is full of ‘hard science’. The principle four characters are well drawn out and believable and the story progresses at an enjoyable pace.

It is Niven’s sheer inventiveness and creativity that shines throughout Ringworld. It had me thinking “fuck, this book is awesome!” from about page two onwards. (Having a literature degree allows me to have such powerful analytical insights like this). Along with all this wonder and science and adventure, there is a great deal of humour. The initial ship they travel in is called the ‘Long Shot’ and the craft they ultimately crash into Ringworld is called ‘The Lying Bastard’.

The Pierson’s Puppeteers are great inventions. As a race they are incredibly powerful and advanced. They are also massive cowards. They don’t trust spacecraft and instead place several planets in exact equidistant orbits around a star and move the whole lot. The only ones who travel and mix with humans are officially labelled ‘insane’. Although it is perfectly possible to travel faster than light they choose not to due to the very slight risks involved, so they have begun their exodus from our region of space 20,000 years before they have to. Wu at one point comments that it would be typical of humans to ignore the danger of the exploding galactic centre until the last minute and then there would be a mad scramble for safety. Because we’re exciting idiots.

Anyway, I won’t go into too many of the ideas as there are a lot of them and I would ruin it for you. Needless to say, Ringworld is superb. I often prefer pre-1980s Sci Fi as it tends to be more idea and philosophy based. The world itself is a very cool, huge idea and the possibilities for it are almost endless.

Ringworld has won a shitload of awards and deservedly so. Apparently there is a film being discussed but this has been the case for a few decades now. I wish they would hurry up with it, it might get a few more people to read the book.

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Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

neil_gaimanNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman is a superb book that I highly recommend.

When Richard Mayhew rescues what seems to be a wounded homeless girl, he suddenly finds himself sucked into an alternate underground London. This ‘under-London’ features various characters that may seem familiar if you are in any way acquainted with the capital (if you aren’t, you have probably wasted your life). There are black friars, a bridge enshrouded with ‘night’ (Knightsbridge, get it?), an Earl who holds court, characters like Old Bailey and Hammersmith, and an angel called Islington.

I recently finished Neverwhere and I have to say, it made me sad that it had to end at all. I really didn’t think it would be my cup of tea – it seemed a bit ‘magical’ and ‘mythological’ for my liking – but it was actually a great read. I think it was helped by the fact that it was quite dark. The main reasons why it is so good are the sheer imagination of Gaiman and some very vivid characters.

The very cool Marquis de Carabas, Lady Door, Hunter, Islington, and the pschopathic Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar are superb and linger in the memory. In fact my only gripe is the lead character Richard Mayhew. He’s just an annoying, whingeing wimp. You keep hoping he’s going to grow some balls at some point, but he never really does. Well, a bit, but not enough.

He’s mainly a device to progress the plot and help us see this strange world, so it’s nothing to really worry about.

Neverwhere was based on the TV series which initially made me mildly concerned. Books based on movies generally feel a bit shallow after all. (Excluding Alan Dean Foster tie-ins, obviously.) In the introduction I felt reassured by Gaiman explaining how he decided to write the book the moment they started filming and expressing how he would change things for the book and the extra bits that got cut out. It pissed off the director apparently and he was asked to shut up about it. I haven’t seen the TV show but I’m glad I read this first. It filled me with the joy you get as a kid when you discover a world you fall in love with and characters you like go out and have cool adventures in it.

I think I’ll now go and buy the DVD. It won’t be as good.

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Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

Don’t be put off by the fact that this book is a ‘Russian classic’, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is truly worth a read. Plus, it isn’t a thousand pages of depression like some others I could mention.

The book, not surprisingly given the title, is concerned with the generation gap. But it is also concerned with Russian society at that time, embracing the modern world, disillusionment, the power of emotion, family dynamics, and change both individual and national. The book was written just after the emancipation of the serfs and is set just before this major event.

The story follows two recently graduated students called Yevgeny Bazarov and his friend Arkady Kirsanov as they travel around meeting various characters. Bazarov and Kirsanov are both ‘nihilists’ and while their beliefs are pretty tame by todays standards, their desire for change, dislike of the ‘system’, and rejection of emotion and embrace of science was revolutionary and shocking in its day. Mind you, so was a woman showing her knees – so it’s all relative.

The characters they visit are almost archetypes of the various strata and political viewpoints of society at the time. It is through the interaction and contrasts with these various characters on their journey that the story is told. The society at the time was undergoing a massive upheaval and the fathers are struggling to adapt to these changes that are represented by their children. The younger generation transform too, as their nihilistic rejection of emotion is broken down by experience and love.

Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons is a true classic and is a strong contender for the first true Russian novel. It has influenced so many writers that you really should give it a try.

Ok, unless you are into this kind of literature you might be bored by the description above. So I should also mention that it includes mysterious but hot Russian widows, hippy chicks, disease, intrigue and even a duel with pistols.

Fathers and Sons can be read in a day. In my opinion, it would be a day well spent.

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Welcome to Hell by Colin Martin

I wrote this for a magazine in Bangkok. Might as well chuck it in here!

Welcome To Hell – One man’s fight for life inside the Bangkok Hilton

By Colin Martin

Welcome to Hell

Welcome to Hell by Colin Martin

Go into any western bookshop or airport in Thailand and you will come across a plethora of books penned by expats. These books generally fall into three categories. The first is the gritty detective novel featuring a world weary Western detective and his Thai girlfriend/wife who may or may not play an active role in the usually predictable tale. The second is a personal description of someone’s experiences in Thailand as a teacher, bar owner, punter or barfly. Colin Martin’s ‘Welcome to Hell’ falls firmly into the third and smallest category – Westerner ends up in a Thai prison and has a thoroughly unpleasant time.

Unlike some others in this latter group, Mr Martin claims that he was innocent. This alters the angle of his woeful story from a simple recounting of how horrendous prison life is and becomes a tale of injustice and frustration. A surprisingly enjoyable one.


Colin Martin worked in construction, had his own small business, and was married with kids. An almost clichéd idyll that makes the subsequent fall all the more compelling. In a nutshell – he sees an ad in a newspaper for a Thai-based company that needs some men to work on a nearby oil rig. After several meetings he ends up agreeing to supply the men and pays the company a large sum of money as a guarantee of good faith. Here begins the downfall. The company is fake and he loses all his money, his company, and his wife leaves him. Martin’s series of catastrophically bad decisions doesn’t end there though.

Rather than return to Europe with a lesson learned and his tail between his legs, he decides to stay in Thailand to try and find the men who conned him. He can certainly hold a grudge, as he ends up staying for three years. He even marries a local lady and has a kid. Eventually he finds one of the men involved and gets the address of another. After tricking the main con man into a meeting he ends up scuffling with the man’s bodyguard and kills him. He is then arrested and the police torture him into confessing to murder. The second half of the book describes the aforementioned ‘awful time’ as he languishes in prison for the next eight years.


As I said, this is an extremely readable book that I read in one sitting. It is certainly one of the better novels written about Thailand, even if it is not particularly flattering. While the prose is hardly up there with Greene or Orwell it is simply and entertainingly told. If you felt like a bit of morbid entertainment while lying on beach, then this book would fit the bill. The actual tale itself is, in fact, best read in this frame of mind.

A few things gave me pause for thought, however. Firstly, I did feel sorry for Mr Martin. He is either far too trusting or far too naive. People seem to take advantage of his nature throughout the book. For example, he asks all the men he hires to bring a £10,000 bond with them and they all agree. None of the thirty men do. Not one. He is forced to then foot the bill. When the money is not forthcoming from the company he still goes ahead with everything. He never seems to truly question the fact that he is spending vast amounts of money for the privilege of being hired. Well he does a bit. Just not enough. Later, after his arrest, his brother sends him money to post bail. Despite three years of experience in Thailand, he gives the money to his Thai wife who comes from a poor provincial village, is much younger than he is, and who has a family to support. Unsurprisingly, she runs away with the money.

I occasionally found him hard to empathise with as a person. Amidst constant claims that he is just an innocent, family loving, businessman, there were details that niggled. On the first page he talks about an incident where someone is humiliated and if it had been him, he would have ‘smashed the guys face in’. When he finally meets one of the con men he head-butts him. He then beats a bodyguard to death, which is pretty extreme for a mild mannered businessman. Maybe I am being too harsh and he is simply an innocent guy that has been pushed too far.

I was mildly confused by some of the details of his crime. I won’t ruin anything for future readers but there are also some strange goings-on with a supposedly unconscious man disappearing and then turning up dead. Again maybe I am being too harsh.

Final conclusion:

I feel I should reiterate at this point: this is a highly enjoyable, easy to read, perfect beach book. The writing style is straightforward and compulsive. It will confirm anyone’s suspicions that life in a Thai prison is horrendous but there are some touching points in the story. There are also examples of some true acts of human kindness that help our protagonist survive his ordeal and help counterbalance his tale of woe. Some people are genuinely nice after all. Recommended.

You can buy Welcome to Hell by Colin Martin by clicking on this link. 

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A word about JG Ballard

JG Ballard

JG Ballard

I would feel remiss if I let the death of one of my favourite authors pass by without comment. JG Ballard died of cancer aged 78 on the 19th of April 2009. It is sad to think he will never release another book.

He was usually labelled a Sci Fi writer but he frequently strayed from this label to write unique, often dystopian, scenarios that sort of/kind of/might just happen. Tired of trying to label his writing techniques and topics, he is actually in the dictionary (some of them) as ‘Ballardian’ so you can just use that. Ballard described his work as ‘speculative fiction’.

I might write full reviews later but just in case you haven’t read any of his work, I will provide a brief synopsis of some of my favourites:

Concrete Island

Concrete Island

Concrete Island (1974) tells the story of Richard Maitland in a twisted modern version of Robinson Crusoe. The protagonist crashes his car into an island formed by the junction of three major motorways and gets stranded. Due to his leg being knackered he can’t cross the road and his attempts at flagging down speeding cars proves futile. So he’s stuck. He then struggles to survive and even discovers that he is not alone. As always, a great novel with a brilliant idea, but I found Maitland a hard guy to like all that much. Not that it really matters.
Buy Concrete Island here

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun

Empire of the Sun (1984) is probably his most famous book. This is mostly due to the fact that it was filmed by Spielberg. It is almost autobiographical in that it tells the story of a boy called Jim Graham (JG stands for James Graham) who grows up in Singapore and is interned in a camp by the Japanese when they take over in World War II. This all happened to Ballard except that in real life he was with his parents. He undoubtably used a certain amount of artistic licence but his experiences were genuine. The book is debatably his finest, and most award-worthy. I say ‘debatably’ as lots would disagree. The characters are well defined and believable with a strong narrative. Which isn’t always the case with Ballard. Highly recommended. Don’t just see the film. Buy Empire of the Sun here

High Rise

High Rise

High Rise (1975) is possibly my favourite idea of all his work. It tells the story of a luxury self-contained high rise apartment block that comes complete with its own swimming pools and supermarkets. There is no real need to leave if the residents don’t want to. This book returns to his favourite dystopian theme and the ideas of how modern life and psyche can be affected by the artificial surroundings we have created for ourselves. The apartment block has rich penthouse owners at the top, middle-class luxury apartments in the middle, and cheaper smaller flats for the working class at the bottom. A class war effectively breaks out as the block looks inwards and the residents return to a primal state. There are raids on different floors and battles for control of the pool. A very effective, if slightly extreme, study of humanity and what we can be capable of. Buy High-rise here It is now also a great movie!

Millenium People

Millenium People

Millenium People (2003). I read this a few months ago and enjoyed it immensely. It tells the tale of a middle-class revolution in the UK. Barrsiters, art gallery owners, and media types get fed up with their lot in society and say bollocks to it all. It centres around the revolution ring-leaders in a gated community in Chelsea. While the book is witty and very readable it becomes hard to identify with many of the well defined characters. Not one of his best, Millenium People is fun – especially if you happen to be middle-class, live in London and frequent some of the novel’s locales such as Tate Modern, the NFT, and the South Bank generally. I would recommend this only once you have enjoyed some of his other works. Buy Millenium People here

The Drowned World

The Drowned World

The Drowned World (1962) is Ballard’s second book and a difficult one to summarize. It is set in a world were the ice caps have melted, the temperatures are rising and London is transformed into a strange, overgrown, lush tropical dreamworld. While most people have migrated north, a few feel drawn to the primeval landscape. These characters also start to regress to a more primitive state. Like High Rise and Concrete Island and others – it is a typical Ballardian exploration of a dystopian society and the way our surroundings affect our mental states. It has hardly any narrative or story but is more a a dreamlike summation of the mood of the fetid swamplike landscape and its affects on the characters. A great novel but not for everyone. Buy The Drowned World here

I intend to read all of Ballard’s books over the coming months but the above should at least give you a taste of his work and why he is so hard to categorise. I would highly recommend his short story collection Vermillion Sands as well but I haven’t read it in ages so can’t summarise it here.

If you haven’t read any Ballard at all you are in for a treat and should try some. If you have – then I’ll just shut up. He was a great writer and one of the wittiest men to see doing a reading or an interview. Along with two of my other favourite authors dying in the last couple of years – Kurt Vonnegut and George MacDonald Fraser –  Ballard’s death is a loss to us all.

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