Category Archives: Books

The Dry

The Dry

The dramatic cover of this book caught my eye several times over a few weeks, online and in the real world.

Eventually it seemed that it was virtually stalking me, so I gave in and acquired a copy. I’m glad to say that in this case at least nothing is lost by judging a book by its cover.

The Dry is set in Kiewarra, a tiny South Australian farming community beset by drought. Rain has been absent for years, the countryside is parched, times are hard, tempers are frayed and tensions are high all round.

Aaron Falk is a Federal Police detective based in Melbourne, specialising in financial crime. Originally from Kiewarra, one day he gets a phone call telling him his best friend  from his school days in the town, Luke Hadler, is dead – along with his wife and young son. All of them shot with the family’s own shotgun, apparently by Luke.

However, Falk’s own past ties to Kiewarra are far from straightforward – as is the reason why he left the town so many years before.

When he returns ‘home’ for the funeral, his own unfinished business comes back to haunt him in unexpected ways.

Can Falk unravel the intensely personal and intricately intertwined mysteries of the past and the present?

And stay alive while he does it?

 

 

Book Challenges – Yay or Nay?

Last year I read 103 books.

I know because Goodreads tells me so. Or at least Goodreads tells me that I told it that was the number.

Actually it was the number, I didn’t game the system though of course it is possible. It was the first time I had ever consciously kept track of how many books I read over a year.

Thoughts on the experience?

It definitely made me much more aware of how many books I had read, and was reading. How often do you realise that days have gone by and very few or maybe no pages have been read? It’s easy as we all discover to lose time, to get lost in other things, to be the fly in molasses. The Goodreads counter knocked lassitude on the head – ‘You’re on track!’ or ‘You’re 2 books behind’. It never went beyond two, the kick in the pants worked wonders ever time.

Added to the impetus was the % read tracker on my Kindle. Between the two, there was a steady drumbeat of recognition of progress made, or not, and encouragement to stay on track, or catch up.

Over time this did though grow to be a little disconcerting. Only 15% through a book? 1 book behind? Time to up the pace…..maybe speed up? Skip a little even? There were targets to be met after all!!

This was the downside of what was mostly a positive experience. A ticking clock measuring anything inevitably pushes towards a greater tempo, and then greater still, as it counts down, ever closer to the moment on 31 December and the final reckoning. The odd psychological effect was that even though the figure I set was entirely of my own choosing, and no one cared or was watching, and the unseen outcome counted for absolutely nothing, it did assume a significance just by being there. I not sure I liked that feeling, and especially not to have it bound up and instilled with reading – a pleasure and a realm intended to be as enjoyable as it is because it was separate from deadlines and pressures, walled off in its own sanctuary beyond normal space and time, and the everyday world. Though of course really it’s not – but it’s nice to think that way.

It’s easy (and in the grand scheme of thing right) to say that the best response was to just chill, since the grand total was freighted with no meaning – nothing was lost at 98 or gained by 103 books read.

And yet. It mattered. Oddly, and perhaps inexplicably so. I’m not sure why. I wasn’t competing with anyone. As I said no one was keeping an eye on me. I didn’t mention any total or the challenge to anyone, let along invest any importance in reaching the figure.

So why care? A good and puzzling question. A challenge is a challenge perhaps? Losing to oneself is the worst defeat of all? Keeping track highlighted how much time is actually ‘wasted’, as it might be termed, not reading? Maybe 100 books doesn’t seem a very large number? Especially in a  year? With over 1,200 on my Kindle alone? And more to add? And that leaves aside all the paper mounds and pyramids accumulated and waiting to be explored?

In a way I suppose keeping track revealed a tangible mortality of time, a limit that is real and insurmountable. Our thread of life is finite and what we do with the length available, in so far as we can ever know or guess what that is, is a series of choices.

And all of the time a clock is ticking.

Like it or not.

I set the 100 books goal again this year, with a bit more trepidation and hesitation than last.

Let’s see how it goes……tick……tock……tick…….

Acts of the Assassins

Acts of the Asassins cover
Acts of the Assassins

The close associates of a dead insurgent leader start meeting grizzly deaths.

Doubts arise as to whether the insurgent himself is really dead. His diminishing band of companions proclaim not. Bizarrely they believe he came back from the dead.

Disgraced secret policeman Cassius Gallio knows this is impossible. He was in charge of the crucifixion of Jesus – he saw the radical agitator die before his eyes. True, the body was stolen from a tomb but the guards were inexperienced and open to offers. Still he suffered for the embarrassing outcome – busted back down to uniform and posted to the wilds of Moldova.

Now, though with one phone call he’s on a plane back to Jerusalem – the case is reopened, and with it the chance to save himself and possibly the Roman Empire as well.

Even from that short description it’s obvious that Richard Beard’s book is different. A Roman Empire with phones? And planes? The Twelve Apostles as part of a murder mystery? Roman Imperial FBI with Glock pistols?

The premise is intriguing and the setting and background as creative as it is mind-bending and unsettling.

Plotwise the story is a little weak but the concept and context is so inventive that you keep reading to learn more of this odd and unique story world, and of course to find out what happens to the characters in this strange parallel universe.

Not a book that you might ever re-read but one that has enough elements of interest to hold the reader the first time around, and when the end is reached it’s hard not to find satisfaction freighted with relief.

 

Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New JihadUnder the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad by Sami Moubayed

Is the Islamic State/ISIS a flash in the pan? Brutal but ephemeral? Or might it be more long-lasting?

Could it even become a ‘proper’ state? Might the ‘Caliph’ one day address the UN?

Dr. Sami Moubayed is a Syrian historian and researcher who tries to answer these questions in Under the Black Flag: At the frontier of the new jihad.

Based in Damascus, he has the bitter sweet advantage of witnessing the events convulsing his country at first hand, and has interviewed many of those involved. This proximity to sources and evidence gives a unique perspective to his book. An added strength is that he has no particular axe to grind – the tragedy he describes that is the current Syrian crisis is made all the worse by seeming to have no obvious solution and no easy fixes.

In trying to understand ISIS and the other jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq, he emphasises their ideology as deriving from one specific strand of Islamic thought, and not, as ISIS and indeed some of its enemies would claim, inherent in and intrinsic to Islam itself.

Moubayed traces this extremist interpretation from the 1300s thought of Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328) to later Wahhabism in the 1700s and beyond, revived in the twentieth century by people such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb and continued by modern salafi-jihadism.

He shows that this history is far from irrelevant – it is indeed the central focus of and justification for the ruthless campaigns of ISIS, the Nusra Front and al Qaeda: a return to what they imagine was the purity of the past. Simply return to those beliefs and glory will follow. Anyone rejecting the call stands in the way of regress, and will suffer.

Moubayed describes how the Islamic State based on the city of al-Raqqa in Syria, and headed by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi/self proclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, now has all the trappings of a state – a civil service, a police force, an army, an intelligence service, taxes, schools, a capital, a national anthem, a flag and significant income from oil smuggling and border crossing levies. This developing governance structure is staffed by many experienced ex-Iraqi Army officers and former Baath officials.

No less important is a slick and sophisticated communications strategy, taking in social media, as well as print, television, and radio.

Overall, Moubayed concludes, ISIS is a significant threat and one that stands a good chance of creating a functioning and enduring state from the ruins of what was Syria and Iraq.

A sobering assessment from an experienced and talented scholar in an informative and well researched book.

Trigger Mortis

Cover image of Trigger Mortis - Bond is back
Trigger Mortis – Bond is back

Books ‘in the style of’ a deceased author can be hit and miss, but Anthony Horowitz had the advantage of a framework, and even some original passages, written by Ian Fleming himself when creating this new James Bond thriller.

Set in the 1950s, Horowitz manages skilfully to retain the essence of Bond while thankfully jettisoning the more objectionable and dated aspects of the originals.

In Trigger Mortis women protagonists give as good as they get, henchmen have backstories, and Bond has a conscience. But not too much of a one.

None of this gets in the way of a rollicking good story – on the contrary, even as the plot and characters have more depth and satisfying nuances, the action is if anything enhanced.

All the traditional staples of a Bond story are here to be enjoyed – a maniacal villain, a female character with a memorable name, an inventive and dastardly sinister scheme, and perhaps Bond’s most challenging dicing with death ever, all set against a background of Cold War tension and the Space Race.

In Horowitz’s talented hands Trigger Mortis makes for an enjoyable read whether you’re a long-time Bond fan, a dedicated thriller aficionado or just in search of your next good book.

Gone Girl

Gone Girl Poster
Gone Girl

 

I came late to Gone Girl.

Gillian Flynn’s novel became a phenomenon in 2012. Published in June, it sold over two million copies within the year.

Gone Girl book cover
Gone Girl – Arguably the novel of 2012

It became a favourite of book clubs and a stalwart of review pages, staying at the top of the New York Times bestseller index for weeks on end.

Somehow it passed me by at the time, but with the movie version arriving in Ireland I decided to catch up with the book before seeing it.

Near the end of the book I was faced with quandary of whether to see the movie if I’d read the book, and compromised by not finishing the last few chapter.

The film itself sticks closely to the book, with some minor changes – interestingly the screenplay is by Gillian Flynn as well, so fidelity to the written word is not surprising. By no means though is this a rigidly ‘stage bound’ production slavishly following every aspect of the book; some parts and characters have been omitted, and some minimised and the timeline altered where necessary.

The core of the story remains the same. Nick Dunne and Amy Elliott Dunne are married. Both are writers. They live the life of a dream couple. Amy is the inspiration for and living embodiment of her parents’ best selling children’s books ‘Amazing Amy’, about a near perfect girl who (over)achieves at everything.

Nick Dunne left his North Carthage, Missouri  behind and become a success in the literary/journalism world of New York.

Boy meets girl at a party, true love strikes and the two are entwined as soulmates for ever.

The End.

Not quite. The fairytale takes a bit of a dent when both lose their jobs and move back to Nick’s hometown, but their lives continue more or less as normal.

When the film opens we see Nick Dunne now an ex-writer running a bar with his sister, Margo – or Go for short.

It’s Nick and Amy’s five year anniversary; he doesn’t have a present yet but he has the whole day……then the phone rings.

Nick drives home and finds his house empty. Amy has disappeared – the Gone Girl.

The rest of the movie unravels and unspools the story in more detail, using present and flashback perspectives.

The surprises come thick and fast, as do the twists, turns, and revelations. What starts as a simple love story and two people fated to be together, takes a complicated turn with many angles.  Will true love run its course? In sickness and in health, till death do them part?

Rosamund Pike was a little questionable for the early part of the film but by the end her performance will be seared in your brain – especially one particular scene; if you don’t like blood, be prepared!

Ben Affleck is well-nigh perfect for the role of Nick, and the supporting cast of Tyler Perry, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens in particular are very much contenders for best on-screen performance.

Very enjoyable with some of the tense and uncomfortable moments that mark out a good thriller. Do see it if you get a chance – just not if your relationship (should you be in one) is in any way delicate!

America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation

America 1844 - poised for change
America 1844 – poised for change
America 1844: Religious Fervor, Westward Expansion, and the Presidential Election That Transformed the Nation – (November 1, 2014; Chicago Review Press) by John Bicknell

It’s fair to say that neither John Tyler nor James Polk rank very highly as memorable Presidents of the United States.

If he had lived slightly longer perhaps Tyler might at least have become infamous – he was elected to the Congress of the Confederate States of America but died soon after, sparing the USA the sting of seeing one of its ex-Presidents serving the secessionist South.

But as author John Bicknell makes clear in America 1844 perhaps these two largely forgotten occupants of the White should be better known because momentous events were set in train during their terms – events that would have far-reaching consequences, not just for America but much of the world.

1844 was an election year in America, and Bicknell takes this as his jumping off point. President John Tyler harboured hopes of running for a second term; his opponents manoeuvred to replace him.

Tyler was unusual in not having a party solidly behind him – he had been elected as Vice President in 1840 on the same ticket as President William Henry Harrison of the Whig party. Tyler was the first Vice President to succeed to the Presidency when Harrison died in office, just 30 days after his inauguration on 4 March 1841.

As President (His Accidency as wits dubbed him), Tyler was expelled from the Whig party for vetoing a number of its proposals. Without a dedicated following he needed nothing short of a miracle to win re-election. To Tyler’s mind, that miracle would be the annexation of Texas – bring that vast land of opportunity into the Union and he would sweep the election of 1844.

The story of that election bookends and scaffolds this volume’s central narrative. Rather than focus entirely on politics, Bicknell skilfully weaves into this tale of electoral chicanery other fascinating aspects of a rapidly changing America that would transform and convulse the new nation in years to come.

Slavery and territorial expansion were closely tied to political wrangling, intimately linked to each other and both were inextricably bound up with the future shape of America. Should the US spread beyond its existing boundaries and settle the question of slavery as it did? Or should it consolidate its achievements for a time, given it was still a young and recent creation with many internal issues to resolve?

While Congress and state politicians ponderously discussed and debated, migrants voted with their feet. Thousands of settlers journeyed into the unknown, towards what they hoped would be better lives in the West – despite not knowing much of what lay there.

Trying to change that in 1844 was John C Frémont, who had set off the previous year to explore the vast unknown areas of what today are parts of Idaho, Oregon, Utah, Nevada and California and map a reliable route westwards. His expedition included the famous ‘mountain man’ Kit Carson. Throughout much of 1844 Frémont’s wife Jessie waited anxiously for news that travelled at snail’s pace across the vast distances involved. Letters intended for the east arrived haphazardly and sporadically.

Samuel Morse’s new invention, the telegraph, was just undergoing its first practical trials in 1844 and would soon render Jessie Benton Frémont’s long agonising wait for news from her husband a thing of the past. Asa Whitney, a New York merchant had an even more radical plan to bind America together not with copper wire but iron rails – his day had not yet arrived but it was a harbinger of the railroads his advocacy and perseverance would eventually bring about.

Add in the social upheavals caused by violent riots against Catholic Irish immigrants in Philadelphia and a large group of religious Americans who were fervently convinced the end of world was nigh and 1844 truly was an eventful year in American history – with more long term importance than anyone could have known at the time.

John Bicknell writes about all of these themes with a telling eye for insightful personal stories and human interest angles that allow the reader to relate to the era. Equally many of the issues that transfixed America then have resonance today – a nation deeply divided, unsure about the impact of immigration, on the cusp of great technological promise while still beset by paralysing fears for and of the future.

A great tale well told and one that provides the reader with both enjoyment and food for thought.

 

 

Fatal Conceit

Fatal Conceit book cover
Fatal Conceit

I was lucky enough to be able to read an advance copy, through Netgalley.com, of this thriller by American author Robert K. Tanenbaum, due for publication on August 12. And I was really hoping to like it. A lot.

It seemed promising. The CIA, covert ops, Chechen rebels, drone attacks, clandestine affairs, grisly murder, skullduggery, cover ups and court room drama.What’s not to love as stories go?

Unfortunately the book has a number of problems.

Tanenbaum, a former Assistant Attorney General of New York county, wears his conservative politics on his sleeve. Barely a page passes without some sideswipe at President Obama, the Democrats, administration officials, government in general, and the US news media. The Comedy Channel and Jon Stewart (not named but you don’t need the forensic skills of say a former Deputy Attorney General to figure it out) come in for some particularly harsh and unfair criticism.

Beyond the distorted looking-glass world of Tanenbaum’s skewed view, even those who strenuously disagree with Stewart and his politics acknowledge his ability – and his effectiveness. Not liking the angle he takes and the fact that he does what he does well is no excuse for petty attacks in print intended to be a work of fiction.

The tide of real world points scoring and recrimination is relentless and frustrating. Indeed the reader begins to wonder why Tanenbaum didn’t just write a political screed instead and concentrate on telling the story in this book.

Perhaps for certain sections of the US market the rather snide asides and continuous flow of carping cynical criticism against everything American except apple pie, guns and Republicans will actually be a selling point but on this side of the Atlantic, and on this island in particular where the Barack Obama Plaza has just been completed, the book and its main protagonist Butch Karp will be a fish out of water.

This explains why Tanenbaum has achieved significant sales in the US but remains largely unknown in Europe. Paradoxically his success in America presents a problem for would-be non-US readers. Fatal Conceit is just the latest in a long line of works in a series stretching to over 25 books featuring the same characters:  Butch Karp, his wife Marlene,  their daughter Lucy, and twin sons.

Much of the plot in this book inevitably refers back to early happenings in its companion volumes, and indeed many of the secondary characters have featured in previous outings. For the non-aficionado this makes life difficult, and Tanenbaum has tried to overcome the hurdle with extensive backstory exposition. In doing this he ends up falling between two stools, with not enough detail for new unfamiliar readers but a clunky clogged text.

Structurally, the story also has other problems. The plot unfolds in a convoluted timeline, full of flashbacks and timeshifts between chapters, with some overlapping in later sections. Action takes place in three main locations, Chechnya with special ops, New York among the administration and cops and finally in the court room. Trying to maintain a sense of suspense and stretch the narrative to encompass all the parts – an uneasy combination of Tom Clancy action set-pieces and John Grisham legal drama – is a struggle requiring the bolting together of what would much more comfortably be two separate books.

All in all I found it a disappointing read but then again I’m not the target audience. For those who read and liked the previous 25 books – and obviously any author, even with credited ghostwriters, who has produced that amount of books is doing something right for a large number of people – this will be I suspect a good experience, a return to familiar characters picking up where they left off, a continuation of previous enjoyment. Which in its way is its own success I suppose.

Blightborn (The Heartland Trilogy)

Blightborn cover image
Blightborn, the second volume in the Heartland Trilogy (Image from terribleminds.com)

 

‘Cael McAvoy dreams of flying….Sometimes the dream is interrupted by the reality of falling’

When we left Cael McAvoy in Under The Empyrean Sky, volume one in this trilogy, his reality had well and truly fallen apart.

Life in the Heartland, an arid expanse dominated by genetically modified corn production, endured by overworked quietly desperate humanity, and overseen by the remote repressive Empyrean from their floating cities in the sky, had thrown up some surprises for Cael, his family and friends.

After a dramatic turn of events, Cael, Lane Moreau and Rigo Cozido are on the run when we join them at the start of Blightborn. The formidable resources of the Empyrean are being marshalled by Proctor Simone Agrasanto. Pursuit will be ruthless and relentless.

Just as the three amigos seem on the verge of eluding trouble, author Chuck Wendig works his magic and expertly ratchets up the tension and injects some juicy dollops of drama.

He also introduces some new characters who add extra layers to the story. In  particular, we get to see inside Empyrean society, and gradually learn more of the origins of both these lordly sky dwellers and the lowly Heartlanders far below.

Boxelder we learned in the previous instalment had ‘the tavern, the Tallyman’s office, the doctor’s, the general store,  –  and, beyond that, not much else but the swaying corn’.

Ormond Stirling Saranyu, one of the flying cities,  on the other hand is a place of mansions and opulence. ‘The afternoon sun caught in a hundred skyscraper windows. The many hills with their many homes. Skybridges and elevator conduits.’ ‘Everything clean. Cloud swept. Beautiful. Nothing like the Heartland’.

Not everyone in the dirt below is happy to accept that the Empyrean ‘have everything where we have nothing’ or that they must be resigned to the drudgery and hopelessness of life as they know it: ‘The dead earth. The empty sky. The gods in their chariots above the peasant’s heads.’

Unrest is brewing in the Heartland. But the Empyrean also have their own plans. An epic clash is inevitable.

As change unfolds Cael McAvoy, Lane Moreau, Rigo Cozido, Merelda McAvoy and Gwennie Shawcatch are front and centre in events.

Joining them are some memorable new friends – as well as an array of sinister new enemies. Telling which is which is not always easy.

This second part of the trilogy then is even better than the first. The action occurs in a number of places, not just Boxelder. More is revealed of how this world came to be as it is, but not everything; mystery remains for part three. Female characters feature prominently in all of the story’s plots and subplots – and as could be expected from the writer of the ‘Miriam Black’ books, these women are strong, independent and resourceful.

Most importantly the essence of Blightborn hinges ultimately on human relationships and change, growing up and trying to find out who we are – themes to which all of us can relate. The characters live in a world which like our own is not black and white, a complex world where change happens even when we don’t want it, and not always in the way we like even when we do want it. Confusion, doubt and even fear trouble all of the protagonists in this book at some stage – and those who are the most certain and definite are some of the least likeable.

The book has great pace, a compelling storyline, beguiling characters, tension that’s almost torture, satisfying depth, seriously sizzling dialogue and some wise reflections on human nature and the vagaries of life and love.

Part three of the series is eagerly awaited!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Under the Empyrean Sky

Floating havens above a corn filled landscape
Corn on the mob

 

Corn. Sweet, wholesome, goodness.

Right? Wrong.

Not in the world of Cael McAvoy, his family and neighbours.

Their hardscrabble settlement of Boxelder is besieged by corn. ‘Hiriam’s Golden Wonder’, a genetically modified version of the plant dominates everything about life in the town and far beyond it – an area known as The Heartland.

What lies beyond very few people know. Schools have been abolished, travel is forbidden.

The Heartland, and its people, exists solely to provide processed corn products, fuel and raw material to The Empyrean – whose floating cities (flotillas) pass across the sky-high above Cael and Boxelder.

‘Where would the Heartlanders be without the Empyrean watching over them? Without Empyrean science, without guidance, without a system of order in place?’ says an Empyrean representative.

Cael on the other hand sees the same situation as ‘callous control’ with a ‘crushing grip’. Like the stereotypical teenager Cael is angry at pretty much everything. Unlike most teenagers he has very good reason. He can look ahead to nothing but endless days of working in the corn processing facility. His job will be allocated, his wife will be chosen, his whole future decided without any say on his part – ‘that’s life in the Heartland’ as the saying goes.

The Heartlanders best case scenario is to survive as virtual serfs for as long as possible. How long that will be is debatable, but life will most likely be relatively short and death comes in many forms – accidents and  back-breaking toil might be the sweetest release, a merciful way to avoid the cruel tumours and sicknesses caused by chemically contaminated land, water and food.

Cael is furious too at his father, Arthur ‘Pops’ McAvoy, who seems to placidly accept his lot without objection. He works at the processing plant, with a deformed hip to show for his troubles. Cael’s mother is an invalid hovering at the edge of consciousness, her body completely ravaged by tumours. Merelda his sister regularly runs away, endangering the family’s already precarious existence by threatening to draw the attention of the town’s Empyrean Overseers, or ‘Babysitters’ as they are derisively called by the Heartlanders.

Scarcely anything exciting ever happens in Boxelder. The one source of fun and freedom for Cael and his friends – Lane Moreau, Rigo Codizo and Gwennie Shawcatch – is scavenging among the corn for salvageable parts of abandoned and broken machinery. They do this not on foot but using a boat – however this boat floats not on water but above the corn, using a rudimentary variety of the technology that keeps the massive Empyrean flotillas safely airborne. These enjoyable excursions along with their teenage freedom will end soon though – working full-time will leave them too tired or too ill for such jaunts.

Little seems set to change for Cael, his family and friends. Their paths are set, their fates ascertained. Yet not everything is as fixed as it might seem in the Heartland. Surprises and shocks are in store…..

Author Chuck Wendig frequently, articulately and very wittily offers excellent and well grounded advice on the theory of good writing at his terribleminds blog.  In Under The Empyrean Sky he has ably demonstrated in practice his own enviable talent in the art of not only good but compelling writing by producing a world which is familiar yet utterly different, a society with some recognisable features but many which astound and amaze, and a plot which never lets the reader take anything for granted.

A sterling example of matching wise words with deft deeds!