Holiday book reviews – second edition

And now, here are some reviews of the books I read while I was away last month!

Soft Target – Conrad Jones

The book opens quite literally with a bang as a number of terrorist attacks are carried out or attempted in quick succession, in various locations in the US: Disney World, San Fransisco, Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. Once the job is complete, the organiser Yasser Ahmed heads to Britain with the intent of carrying out more attacks – and it’s up to the Terrorist Task Force, led by John “Tank” Tankersley, to stop him.

The best thing about this book is the amount of research that Jones has clearly done: there’s a lot of background detail regarding just about everything, so it all feels believable. One of my complaints about Kill Alex Cross was that it didn’t bother to explain why the terrorists were doing what they did, other than ‘well, they’re terrorists’: here, the motivations of the terrorist characters are made very clear. The action scenes, meanwhile, are suitably thrilling. However, there are significant problems too: there are some presentation mistakes throughout in terms of spelling and grammar. The good guys feel under-developed and quite bland compared to some of the terrorists. Sometimes there’s too much background detail: in a scene at Anfield, for example, we don’t necessarily need to know how the Kop got its name. And the story rather fizzles out at the ending, finishing in a quick and unsatisfying way. Rating: 2/5.

Stardust – Neil Gaiman

In the English town of Wall, there exists a gateway to the land of Faerie – and every nine years, the people of the other world come through for a fair. At one of these fairs, an encounter between local boy Dunstan Thorn and a Faerie woman results in Dunstan being landed with a son, named Tristran. As a young man, Tristran gets the girl of his dreams to promise him anything he wants if he can recover a fallen star for her, and so sets off through the gateway to find the star in question, unaware that he is not the only one doing so.

Having really enjoyed the film (partly for providing the only Take That song I feel any real enthusiasm for – sorry, Mum), I was eager to read this one. Stardust isn’t an especially long story; I think I managed to get through it in a single day, but the fact that it’s so good probably contributed to that too. Gaiman creates a really great world here; the traditional English village with its share of quirkiness, and the fantasy land of Faerie, combine very well. There’s a sense of how large this fantasy world is, and how we only get to see a small part of it. There are multiple plotlines to follow – as well as Tristran, we have a witch and a number of princes all looking for the star – and they all intersect efficiently and compellingly. And the characters themselves are just as good, with plenty of charm and magic distributed appropriately amongst them. Stardust has pretty much everything that a fan of fantasy could want – except perhaps for the ending, where things fall a bit flat.  Everything is resolved far too easily and anticlimatically: the film’s ending may be more typically Hollywood, but I thought it worked a lot better. But yes, everything else here is wonderful. Yeah, you and me, we can ride on a star… Rating: 4.5/5.

Due Diligence – DJ Harrison

After being sent to perform a due diligence audit for her company, accountant Jenny Parker is offered a substantial bribe to ensure that there are no problems. Soon after, life continues to change: Martin, the man she is having an affair with, disappears and is eventually found dead; her work situation appears to be improving – then with little warning, everything goes to hell, and Jenny is forced down some deeply uncomfortable paths.

I don’t believe I’ve disliked a protagonist so much since reading I Am Dead. Jenny is extremely grating and self-centred: at one point, when she feels her husband has wronged her, she describes him as “a cruel, cold-hearted monster, with no regard for anyone’s feelings but his own”, when in fact this is a better description of herself. Towards the beginning, she keeps going on about how she’s going to leave her husband as soon as she is able: the problem with this is that through the reader’s eyes, he doesn’t seem terribly flawed – he just seems like an average bloke, so it’s Jenny who looks unreasonable. She does genuinely love her son, and places a lot of focus on him, but that’s not enough to make her sympathetic. Also, a large proportion of the book revolves around business and financial transactions which weren’t really presented in such a way as to keep me invested. The story does pick up in the latter stages, with more drama and action, but overall I wasn’t a fan of this one. Rating: 1.5/5.

Tiger Wars: The Falcon Chronicles – Steve Backshall

Saker is a member of the Clan, a group of young boys who have undergone special training to undertake various missions in dangerous, wild environments. Sinter is a high-caste girl from northern India who finds herself being forced into an arranged marriage. After the Clan is sent to India on a mission to hunt tigers for an unknown client, Saker abruptly wakes up in the forest, on the run and having lost his memory. His flight brings him into contact with Sinter, and the two of them are left running from Saker’s former friends and working against their intentions toward the tigers.

Steve Backshall is best known as the presenter of the wildlife programme Deadly 60; when I heard he’d written a few novels, I was interested to try them out. They say ‘write what you know’, and so Backshall places focus on his specialist area. While there is some occasional clumsiness to his prose, there’s definitely a lot to like. Backshall does a brilliant job of taking what he wants to deliver – an appreciation of nature, with some interesting facts, and an awareness of the plight of endangered species – and weaving it into an exciting story. The setup of Saker and the Clan themselves is very interesting; while Sinter looks a bit bland by comparison to begin with, she soon starts distinguishing herself. There are some very tense action scenes, such as when Saker and Sinter have to climb a bridge and cliff into a heavily guarded compound. The sense of place, in the forests and mountains of Asia, is particularly good: Backshall gives a lot of majestic detail, putting you right there in the middle of it all. And he delivers the conservation message very effectively and painfully: as he says in the author’s note, he really wishes that the poaching and sale of tigers depicted therein was actually fiction. Definitely recommended if you’re interested in wildlife and conservation. Rating: 4/5.

N0S4R2 – Joe Hill

At a young age, Vic McQueen discovers that when she rides her beloved Raleigh bicycle, she gains the ability to ride it through a portal, taking her to the exact location of something she is looking for. Eventually, she learns that there are a number of people with strange powers like this. Unfortunately, one of them is Charles Manx, who abducts children in his Rolls Royce and transports them to the dream world he has created, using them to prolong his own life. A subsequent encounter with Manx leaves Vic deeply scarred – and years later, as an adult, she has to face him again.

Joe Hill, in case you don’t know, is the son of Stephen King. The story he’s created here is very much akin to his dad’s work at its most wicked. In fact, it even apparently takes place in the same universe: just as King’s stories often contain references to his other works, this one has references (at least) to IT and Doctor Sleep. One of the things I liked most about this story was its unpredictability and the directions it goes in: for example, it takes place over a longer period of time than I anticipated at the beginning, with the protagonist Vic growing into an adult – and going through some serious trauma even when the villain Charles Manx isn’t directly involved – over the course of the story.

But this is ultimately a horror story, and it’s probably one of the most horrifying I’ve read. Any story with a monster who targets children is going to be nasty, but it’s what Manx does to the children that’s especially terrible. In the latter stages, we actually get to see a child’s mind gradually transforming as Manx works on him; it’s not pretty. Besides that is Manx’s dream world itself, which is known as Christmasland: perversions of the innocent like this also make for effective horror. Like Doctor Sleep, you’re desperate to see the villain get his comeuppance here. It all combines to make a dark and deeply penetrating story, that’s still great if you’ve got the stomach for it. Rating: 4.5/5.

The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

Rachel Watson is an unemployed alcoholic still hung up on the breakdown of her marriage, who takes the train to and from London every day to hide the fact that she was sacked some time ago. On the journey, she likes to observe a young, apparently happy couple who live on the same street where her ex-husband still resides with his new family. One fateful Saturday night, Rachel drunkenly heads to the street – and the next day, the woman she’s been observing is reported missing. Unable to remember exactly what happened, Rachel takes it upon herself to investigate, making some disturbing discoveries along the way.

I experienced this one in audiobook format; the three POV characters – Rachel, Megan and Anna – were voiced by three different voice actresses, and I found the former two’s segments to be some of the best voice acting I’ve heard in an audiobook (though Anna’s is very flat). As for the story itself, I liked the style of writing a lot. I liked the slow reveal at the beginning of just how troubled Rachel’s life really is, and the amount of detail with which she describes the world around her. The voices of the three women also feel suitably distinct (in terms of writing, not just audio). And the central mystery is done fairly well: I was always interested to find out what would happen, and there are little clues to the truth scattered throughout which you only notice when you look back afterwards. I was, however, able to figure out the answer a little ahead of time, which I’m usually not very good at in mystery stories.

The story does have its share of problems, however. The pacing is quite slow at times; but what really lets it down are the characters. All three of the POV characters are deeply flawed: Rachel is a drunk who can’t let go of the past and displays stalker tendencies; Megan is an unfaithful, irresponsible insomniac; and Anna, the mistress-turned-wife of Rachel’s ex, admits that she never felt the slightest bit guilty about being the other woman. These flaws, of course, make them more compelling and help to drive the story; but it ultimately goes too far, making them irritating and unlikeable. I ended up losing patience with both Rachel and Megan, who both seem to feel that if you admit what you’re doing is wrong, it’s OK to carry on doing it. Rachel in particular comes across as frustratingly pathetic with her drinking, prying and harassing, and the terrible decisions she makes that it’s hard for anyone to justify. Overall, not bad, but there’s a lot better out there. Rating: 3/5.

In other business, July is coming up, and with it another Camp NaNoWriMo. At first, I was going to do my second choice from last NaNoWriMo. Then after reading Dead Wake: The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, I thought I’d do a historical story about the Lusitania. But now I have a different plan. Having spent a large portion of the first half of the year on one particular project (which I’ll hopefully have more details on before too long), I’ve done very little towards my New Year’s resolution of taking one of my old NaNoWriMo novels and giving it a proper edit. So I decided, I might as well use Camp NaNoWriMo to spend some time on it!

The project in question is my 2011 NaNoWriMo vampire novel, currently called The Night Soldiers. I don’t have a proper editing plan as of yet, unfortunately, though I did go through the first draft and identify the main things I want to change. There will be re-writing, research, and expansions involved – should be fun!

About R.J. Southworth

Hi there. I've been blogging since January 2014, and I like to talk about all sorts of things: book reviews, film reviews, writing, science, history, or sometimes just sharing miscellaneous thoughts. Thanks for visiting my blog, and I hope you find something that interests you!
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