Monday, 30 March 2009

“Pandemic”, James Barrington

I've approached James Barrington with his series of Paul Richter techno thrillers backwards. Two Septembers ago his “Foxbat” (the third in the series) provided me with the second half of a 2 for 20 quid deal on 'airport exclusives' at the Dover Eurotunnel terminal as I was casting around for something to go with Ian Rankin's “Exit Music”. “Foxbat” cheerfully served its point as fodder for evenings in what was my last week of living in Belgium. It romped along cheerfully providing a happy degree of excitement even if its core plot was highly implausible I distinctly recall finishing it with a bit of a chuckle, concluding it hadn't been all that bad, and happily passing it along to a colleague as part of my effort to lighten my bag for my return to blighty.

“Pandemic”, the second Richter book posits a fairly typical scenario featuring a long lost biological weapon recovered from the submerged wreckage of an aircraft (shades of Cussler's “Vixen 03”) and the spiralling consequences of this as elements within the US intelligence community attempt to cover the affair up while British man-of-action Paul Richter attempts to uncover the truth. Crete provides a pleasingly different backdrop for the majority of the book. Barrington weaves the disparate plot lines together in a way that succeeds in keeping attention, even if not really approaching the level of 'unputdownability' that true suspense fiction achieves.

Throughout the book there is an immense level of technical detail included. I've gone through phases in my reading life when this is enormously appreciated, feeling that it adds authenticity, but there is the countervailing argument that holds that a lot of it is just padding and doesn't add a huge amount to the core plot. While in this instance the level of diversion into the finer points of military technology or epidemiology didn't bother too much, there were the occasional instances where there was the sneaking suspicion that a slightly sharper editor might have been able to trim a little bloat from the book.

The central character provides a number of credibility challenges. The combination of fighter pilot and spy doesn't sit as easily as perhaps it should, and the level to which he is imbued with a level of cold blooded ruthlessness somehow doesn't help make him especially real. Indeed, throughout “Pandemic” there is a distinct lack of rounded characters the reader can readily identify with. The effect of this is that while this is undeniably a violent book, the acts of violence do not carry the real arresting impact that stops the reader and makes them think. This, if you like, is comic book violence rather than gritty “Nil by Mouth” sort of territory. Taking this approach does not have to be a bad thing – it certainly makes for an easier read, but lessens the extent to which it's a memorable read.

James Barrington isn't quite an author who makes you almost feel guilty for enjoying his books, but by the same token it's neither high literature nor a classic example of the perfectly legitimate spy thriller genre. I'm pleased to have read both of his books that I've so far encountered, and it's probably a safe bet that the rest of his portfolio will over time find its way into my hands. It's an ideal banker for a trip away or a lazy afternoon at home, but I suspect he'll struggle in my mind to transition from being the second half of a 2 for 20 offer to the prime driver.

Friday, 27 March 2009

“The Last Spike”, Cowboy Junkies

While I know there is at least one book entitled “The Last Spike” (the one I seem to recall is about the trans-continental railroad, and thus quite possibly worth a read), it’s the fantastic 1992 song by the Canadian band, the Cowboy Junkies, that I’ve got in mind here.

One of the many nice things about my job is that I get the opportunity to work from home on a reasonably regular basis, and a consequent nice feature of this is I can go for a constitutional around the village when a bit of fresh air and head clearing is needed. Today was one such day, and around lunch time off I head for such mundanities as the post office and a mild thought that I might find lunch in the reasonably good “Ye George” pub on the high street.

Up to now the recession was something that I’d been aware of. It’s hard to escape Robert Peston on the radio, the absence of any interest on my savings is pretty apparent, and while I’d long since stopped going into a branch of Woolworth’s it’s pretty clear that this has now gone as an option. Today, walking through Beckenham it was arrestingly clear that the recession actually means something real to a lot of people. When I moved here, one of the nicest things about it was the thriving village and the sense of community it engendered, and over time I like that I’ve managed to become part of this community.

Today, the High Street is certainly still there, and it’s far too early to be putting nails in the coffin of community, but along the length of the street, but it was all too noticeable that in the last week or so two delis and, most sadly, a small independent coffee merchant, have lost their fight for survival.

While this must be awful for all those concerned, because ultimately it means that people have lost their jobs, I felt the demise of Eva Emilia (the coffee vendors) quite acutely. From a cold commercial point of view I suspect they went under because they didn’t really have the faintest idea about running a business. The shop was hidden away, all too easy to confuse with the slightly odd Chinese herbal shop next door, and the staff always seemed a touch diffident almost about trying to upsell you or manage their loyalty programme. But you know something? That was all part of the charm, and didn’t detract from the fact that their product was both quality and individual. I liked having a bag of “daily fix” or “lunchtime kick” on my desk at work. They were always pretty happy to sell me something a little more unusual to have at home. Most of all I liked living in a village where you could buy something fantastic and different, and the fact that they’re gone more than almost anything else makes me realise that recession is something real, and even if my own employment situation is, so far, largely unaffected, the cold wind blowing through the economy is going to chill every single one of us in some way.

Another nice aspect to working from home is that instead of having hubbub of a sales floor in the background you can play any music you like in the background. Today, despite the best efforts of a whole array of other artists I can’t get the Cowboy Junkies out of my head. I know this hasn’t been much of a review - but if you’re looking for something that in under four and a half minutes sums all the bleak desperation of a community dying away you could do a lot worse than give “The Last Spike” a go. It’s one of the highlights of the broadly very good “Black Eyed Man” album, and Amazon are selling it for not much more than a fiver, which sounds like one of the better ways to spend money. Even better, if you’ve got a small record store near you go and see if they’re selling it. They could probably do with the custom.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

“The Ignorance of Blood”, Robert Wilson

Let's get the obvious statements out of the way right at the start. Robert Wilson's "The Ignorance of Blood" is a fantastic novel of the type that really is of the stay-up-late, ignore what's on the television, read through meals variety. It's also at times a little flawed and, almost certainly, the wrong place to start if you're new to Wilson.

I should also take the opportunity to thank Crimeficreader from the It's a Crime (Or Mystery) blog who was most kind in sending me her review copy of this book, which made for a marvelous postal delivery at the end of last week.

Concluding a quartet of books set in Seville, "The Ignorance of Blood" follows in close sequence to the previous Falcon novel, "The Hidden Assassins", and herein lies the core problem with it as a book. The last novel in a sequence like this will always rely on traits developed in previous volumes, but it's striking how reliant "Ignorance of Blood" is on what has gone before - to the extent that if you remove the context of "Hidden Assassins" it really doesn't make a tremendous amount of sense. This isn't a particular problem in and of itself, but as someone who has read all the Falcon books at time of release, and as it's been a while since 2006 a lot of the details from the previous book were a little fuzzy, and strangely, as Spain seems to lend itself to terrorism related espionage thrillers I found the plotlines between this, Charles Cumming's "Spanish Game", and even, slightly shamefacedly, Charles Ingram's "The Network" all a touch blurred. In retrospect, the release of the conclusion to the quarter should act as a prompt to revisit all three previous books and read them as a continuum. As it stands there are still nagging questions in the back of my mind that make me want to return to the previous books and make sure all the threads have been picked up, and this actually points to the underlying strength of Wilson's prose.

Wilson's mastery of the English language has always shone through his writing, and sometimes it takes exposure to a writer firing on all cylinders to make it clear how good they really are and the level of daylight between them and the ordinariness of the common or garden potboilers we often regard as acceptable. Another reviewer has described his writing as being like that of a fine chocolatier compared to the more usual Galaxy bar we so often encounter, and that probably gets right to the heart of it. Hot climates are written very well by Wilson. In his sense of place and location the reader is truly captivated by the heat of the Spanish night during which so much of the story takes place. This is an appealing world where references to heavy air and sussurating leaves accompanied by beer in a frosted glass tempt you in, and yet the frank violence and the bleak stoicism of victims appalls. While through this Wilson is essentially capturing a duality inherent in terrible crimes committed in beautiful surroundings (the 'serpent in paradise' metaphor), he is not guilty of over romanticising his setting. For every postcard like view of Seville, there is a portrayal of the much more tawdry aspect, the slums that few if any tourists will see, and the despair of those doomed to live there.

There are some arresting passages, and while many will focus on the shocking violence that at times surfaces in the novel, it is the more reflective pieces that for me really highlight the book's underlying darkness. The quiet resigned death of a Russian gangster among the pines is shaded by the comment that "[t]he sight of young girls being defiled always made Ramirez uncomfortable", which strikingly illustrates the level to which evil attains a banality among the inherently good characters exposed to horror all too regularly.

If one of the book's flaws is the level to which the reader has to have read preceding volumes, the other is the slightly uneasy way in which the Russian mafia story intertwines with the Islamist terrorism plot; both are perfectly good storylines and have real levels of interest, however the interaction between the two, and the way a narrative twist is set up involving them, somehow doesn't quite flow. By the same token the final act in Morocco feels rushed and lacks the richness the rest of the story holds. Here too, credibility is a touch stretched, with the level to which Falcon is assisted by the organs of state. Wilson, after "The Company of Strangers", said he was unlikely to write another espionage based novel, and one can't help feeling that he may have been very self aware in coming to this conclusion - the various Spanish, British, and American intelligence agencies in "The Ignorance of Blood" seem a little wooden and their role in advancing the plot feels somewhat contrived.

This shouldn't stand in the way of the fact that "The Ignorance of Blood" really is very good. Part police procedural, part espionage thriller, it is a complete human tragedy. If you've yet to encounter Javier Falcon start at the beginning and work your way through all four, if he's familiar to you, reacquaint yourself with the full suite and then really enjoy the final work. Yes, this approach will mean you take longer to find how all the threads come together, but this time, it's really worth waiting for.

Friday, 20 March 2009

“The Doomsday Prophecy”, Scott Mariani

Like so many books in the 'thriller' genre, it's hard to escape the conclusion with Scott Mariani's "The Doomsday Prophecy" that you are dealing with something very silly indeed. I'm not saying this to be rude about books such as this, and indeed this is exactly the sort of material that helped me make the leap from children's fiction something a little more adult (if not grown up) when an aunt won a copy of Clive Cussler's "Deep Six" in 1985 and pointed it in my general direction. Guiltily, "The Doomsday Prophecy" really is rather good, but it does help to leave preconceptions at the door, and overcome any nagging embarrasment one might feel at reading something that probably wasn't put on the planet to make you a better person.

Scott Mariani has clearly been picked up by editors desperate to jump on the Dan Brown bandwagon, wrapping the tradition thriller/adventure in the garb of the grand historical conspiracy. As others out there have pointed out, there's nothing particularly new in this, Umberto Eco doing it to great effect in "Foucault's Pendulum" - which is still a realistic contender for my Desert Island book, however where Eco laid claim to the literary high ground, works like this are much more in the line of the penny dreadful. For all that, Mariani executes his storytelling really rather well; the pace of plot is relentless, in Ben Hope he's built a reasonably rounded central character who, if a little superhero like, is perfectly likeable, and critically, his plots are built around characters rather than falling into the easy trap of relying on a plethora of unlikely gadgets to drive interest.

The central failings of Dan Brown, namely the scale of the conspiracy, the utterly formulaic nature of the plots, and the need to cram absolutely everything that happens into a 24 hour period, are neatly avoided in "The Doomsday Prophecy". For all that Ben Hope has superman like tendencies, he's not without flaws and vulnerabilities, and while there is the perhaps obligatory level of extreme peril, the main plot device is, one discovers, pleasingly mundane and refreshingly non-earth shattering. There probably is a formula at work here, but like watching "24" the plot has sufficient momentum and the set pieces are executed with such drama and panache that any predictability is effectively masked, and occasionally clunky language can be overlooked - although I am more or less certain there's no real need for "if it comes down to a sniper-counter-sniper situation, I have evidence that proves to me you're just about the best guy in the world for this job".

Scott Mariani has a prodigious work rate. Since the publication of "The Alchemist's Secret" in 2008 he's pumped out a further two Ben Hope books, with a fourth on the way scheduled for July 2009. It's no surprise really to find that his other work has been a guide to how to write a thriller, and herein he makes the key point to understanding this as a genre. His point that "a thriller writer doesn't need to have much in the way of literary pretensions - as a matter of fact these may be more of hinderance than a help" really does cut to the heart of the concept, and probably helps us as readers as much as it does aspiring writers. I can't help wishing that there wasn't a gushing endorsement from "Closer" on the cover, and the pictorial key on the back (pictured) really does make me despair about how publishers are communicating with their readers, but that doesn't alter the fact that in its time and place a pot boiler like "The Doomsday Prophecy" is an utterly pleasurable way of keeping one simultaneously off the street and, let's be honest here, entertained.

I appreciate publishers have to use innovative methods to
tempt readers in, but is this graphic really necessary?

Sunday, 15 March 2009

“iWoz”, Steve Wozniak

Confession time. I have an ambivalent relationship with Apple products. As a young proto-geek in 1980s Ireland, the lone Apple II, lost among serried ranks of Commodore PETs in the school computer room, was a curio, working fundamentally differently to what we were used to, not really playing nicely with the network, and overall coming across as a terribly American product. Moving on, while having the utmost respect for Macs, somehow I got captured by the PC, and now I find myself admiring technology like the iPod, but being utterly repelled by the pseudo-religious devotion it seems to inspire, and thus finding it deliciously ironic that now, should one wish to 'think different”, one generally seems to have to buy something other than an Apple product.

Steve Wozniak is the forgotten “Steve” that founded Apple. Much like the lessons of Paul Allen at Microsoft the Apple example shows how people forget that major computer companies were often team efforts at the start. Wozniak's story is essentially that of a shy committed engineer who wanted to design and build good hardware – the results of which, the Apple I and Apple II, were fantastic results of a single-minded commitment to elegant engineering. His is in many ways an inspiring story of how a dedicated inventor can deliver successful product, and there are many pointers to fruitful labour, not least the admonishment that working alone is often the best way of doing things, and that marketing led organisations, conscious to customer voices and the profit motive, can often deliver appalling product (such as the dismal failure of the Apple III).

A plane crash in 1981 left Wozniak with serious injuries, and to a large extent this ended his active involvement in Apple, and indeed in the true bleeding edge of technology development; while he remains a notional Apple employee, after his accident he seems to move to the margins of the company, not being involved in the evolution of the Macintosh, and increasingly looking to other areas of interest, most fulfillingly in teaching. Prior to this however his story about designing the first personal computers, and significantly coming up with real engineering breakthroughs is fascinating and for someone who has read the likes of Steven Levy's “Hackers” really brings to life the key periods in the evolution of the PC on the West Coast in the 1970s, through organisations like the Homebrew Computer Club. More recently in terms of cultural namechecks, a lot of the experiences Wozniak went through are echoed in Po Bronson's magnificent “The First $20 Million are always the Hardest”.

Perhaps it is a result of the plane crash, equally this could just be an easy excuse, but Wozniak comes across as a na├»ve character. The story of how Steve Jobs underpaid him for his work on the “Breakout” computer game they undertook for Atari is a tangible example of how his heart was clearly not in the business side of life. There are, however, other aspects of his story as told here, from his ready acceptance of “The Pentagon Papers” as telling the whole truth about Vietnam, through his personal relations, to the more obscure decisions he has made, such as his dalliance with Freemasonry, all give a sense that this is the story of someone brilliant in some areas of his life, yet deeply vulnerable in others. The picture that emerges, of the brilliant shy engineer with an affinity for patchily humorous pranks, is one of an interesting yet not always altogether likeable human.

In the greater scheme of things, “iWoz” is not the best book written about the evolution of the PC, and at times it feels as though it could both do with a decent edit, and the sometimes curious additions of sidebars give the impression that the publisher was working to a page count rather than focused on making the core message as powerful as possible. Cast in the light of the wider canon of literature about Apple it serves a very valuable purpose, clarifying some of the early history, and adding colour to the history of the PC's emergence in Northern California during the 1970s, equally it is interesting to read Wozniak's thoughts on Apple's re-emergence though products such as the iMac and, obviously, the iPod. In short, I've tried to buy this book a few times, and to be honest am now somewhat pleased to have been confounded by bookshop filing systems – a good library read, but would have been frustrating as a full price buy.  

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

"Death in Venice", Thomas Mann

I almost feel something of a fraud. Having posted last about how I needed a break from crime and how Italy wasn't quite seizing me, here I am writing about a book with not only death in the title, but Venice to boot. The death however this time is not a murder, but rather a treatment of youth's passage into age and ultimately death, all cast against the decaying backdrop of Venice.

Just because “Death in Venice” isn't a crime novel per se doesn't reduce its somewhat unsettling nature. Like Ruskin before, and Simon Raven afterwards, to say nothing of the obvious connections with Nabokov's “Lolita”, Mann deals with the difficult concept of paedophilia in an unflinching way. For all that the eroticism and lust is unfulfilled, and the distance in time allows an argument to made that Mann and his cast of characters inhabited a different moral universe, the overall reading experience sits a touch uneasily in the early 21st century.

Thomas Mann confirms that portraying Venice as a glorious yet thoroughly decaying, sinking, corrupt city is nothing new. Indeed the pre-World War I atmosphere of Venice, draped with cholera's miasma, is even less a picture-postcard tourist advert than that of Donna Leon's Brunetti series.

While Thomas Mann isn't an everyday banker as an author, and generally you really have to be in the humour for him, he does capture the sense of place and setting enormously effectively. More arresting is how contemporary his writing sometimes feels, belying the fact that “Death in Venice” is practically a century old. In particular von Aeschenbach's encounter with the sole unlicensed gondolier in Venice feels like something much more akin to a 'modern' comedy of manners from the likes of Alexander McCall Smith.

As I say, Thomas Mann probably isn't for everyone, and it's certainly not for me every day. “Death in Venice” works in a British spring, much like “The Magic Mountain” worked in a hot early summer, where the slow pace of the Nemunas River past dismal sanatoria (pictured) matched the gradual personal evolution of Hans Castorp. So, books very much in and of their place. I'm very pleased to have read “Death in Venice”, but I must say I'm rather looking forward to a return to something a little more mainstream.

Thomas Mann meets Boris Pasternak: 
Dusk approaches over faintly depressing sanitoria in Birstonas, Lithuania

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Eclectic Thoughts on World Book Day

When I set out at the start of the year to conscientiously track my reading in blog form I anticipated focusing completely on reviews. After all, so many MBA types will assure you that the key to success in any publishing venture is to concentrate on doing one thing well, and maintaining a coherent identity that will help build a brand. That said, and for reasons that will be clear below, a review is not as imminent as it might be, and a blog that isn't regularly posted to can give the impression that it's somewhat unloved.

Prompting this was Radio 4's "Today" programme, which carried a segment this morning on books that people claim falsely to have read, all connected with it being World Book Day. Perhaps predictably "1984", "War and Peace", and "Ulysses" came out as winners. Initially I thought, Eureka!, that's something I should do, then figured it wouldn't really be all that exciting, as since my undergraduate days, I haven't really been in the business of making up my reading history, and a confession that in the early 1990s I was slightly underhand in claiming to have read such deathless tomes as Trevor Salmon's "Unneutral Ireland" or Nigel Rodley's "To Loose the Bands of Wickedness" shouldn't really get anyone too agitated.

So, what should one muse on for World Book Day?

Recently my reading for pleasure has all been about crime fiction. While this has been a consistent companion for the last 10 years or so, and there's always going to be such a book in my general vicinity, I do seem to go through phases of over indulging on it as a genre, and then taking a break. I suspect I may be on the cusp of such a break now. For the past 10 days or so I've been keeping Donna Leon's "A Sea of Troubles" on the go, and to be honest, not really getting engaged by it. I don't think it's necessarily any fault of the book itself, which on the surface should tick all the necessary boxes, but rather just a case that I probably need to read something different in pace, style, and tone.

My struggles with Leon's Venice here made me think somewhat about the notion of location in books. Perhaps coincidentally the last time I felt quite so jaded by a particular work was again in an Italian setting, this time with Michael Dibdin's "A Long Finish" (purchased, a touch rashly from a very overpriced stand at a Hatfield House book fair). This is interesting, because as countries go, I am exceptionally fond of Italy. I've been lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time there, and get to know some of the idiosyncrasies of the country and its people, and in that vein Italian crime fiction should really work, however perhaps it's down to my familiarity that I'm a more critical eye. Scandinavia I haven't really been to since childhood, but fiction set there has no problem keeping my attention and allowing me to immerse myself in it. Stuart MacBride and Ian Rankin talk about East Coast Scotland in a way that is very familiar to me; and as I hinted at in a previous post, although I've never been to Texas (apologies for sounding like a country and western lyric) and I'm pretty sure I wouldn't enjoy it all that much, Mark Gimenez almost makes it appealing.

So - from this a question. Is it better to read about places that you are familiar with or the more alien? I know I get a particular thrill when a place where I've lived or worked gets culturally name checked, especially when it goes to the micro detail that almost allows you to pinpoint a particular location, but does this make the wider reading experience more or less enjoyable? Not something I have a ready answer for, but perhaps an apposite thought for National Book Day.

I suspect my next review posting will be on something other than a crime novel - although obviously, this doesn not constitute anything resembling a guarantee.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

“The Common Lawyer”, Mark Gimenez

I stumbled across Mark Gimenez by accident. Last summer, annoyed by being unable to find Stuart MacBride's “Flesh House” as an airport exclusive in Terminal Five, and being stuck for a book for a short trip to Frankfurt (because obviously you can always buy a book at an airport) “The Perk” found its way into my possession; and I loved it. While I'm sure Texas would be far too hot for me, and I worry that too much of it would be the sort of strip mall America I'm distinctly less keen on, in his writing Mark Gimenez makes me interested in it, makes one identify with it, and critically it becomes a place the reader feels comfortable in and familiar with.

Mark Gimenez has consistently been likened to John Grisham, and not just because all his titles start with definite article. This, perhaps more than his previous works follows the Grisham like morality tale of the innocent rags to corrupt riches and back to righteous rags progression of the central character. Like Grisham, Gimenez paints a warts and all portrait of the legal world, combining detail of legal process with lawyers who are, almost universally, somewhat flawed human beings.

The very ordinariness of the protagonist, Andy Prescott is a distinct departure from previous works. This time he's not a software billionaire or a blue chip law firm employee; instead he's an indifferent local lawyer specialising in annulling speeding tickets, regarding his job as a means to his particular ends of riding mountain bikes and failing to get a girlfriend. As such Andy Prescott is a particular strength of the book. While long hair and extreme sports are not really what I'm all about, he's a thoroughly engaging character, and if one excludes the excesses of his 'riches' phase, he's both inherently one of the good guys and, critically, someone I think I would like to know.

Where Gimenez has fallen short in the past is in his children characters. In previous works they have simply been far too grown up, coping with adult issues with perceptive stoicism that simply does not ring true. While the core driver of “The Common Lawyer”, with the terminal illness of a billionaire's son, obviously concerns childhood, the roles played are more peripheral, and their actions more childlike; the book benefits hugely from this. That said, the obvious identification with children and their issues, particularly surrounding illness and disability, are handled with a moving sensibility that is often very powerful.

Part legal thriller, part morality play, part action novel “The Common Lawyer” is Mark Gimenez's most accomplished work to date. It's moving, engaging, and I like to think insightful. As an airport novel it's flawless. Bought at Gatwick on Thursday it was finished late on Friday night, driven by the pretty relentless pace of the plot and by a genuine desire to be in Gimenez's Texas universe. It's not without it's flaws, it's sentimental in the extreme in some places and I'm sure someone of a scientific bent could drive a cart and horse through the core premise, but its fusion of the legal thriller and action genres makes it an eminently readable proposition.