Man vs Bookshelf: John Dies at the End

This entry is part 17 of 18 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Okay, this could be a tough review.

Not in an emotional sense, you understand, or because I’ve got nowt to say.

Not even because it’s not a good book.

It’s actually, spoiler alert, a great book.

The problem, in this instance, is more to do with timings.

See, although this blog is coming out on 11th January, I finished it almost a month before that. 17th December, to be exact.

Since then, we had that Christmas thing which, as is its prerogative, threw everything up in the air. Laughing with childish glee as it did so.

Or so I imagine.

I began this review on the 27th December, and I’m now rewriting it on the 28th.

For ten days before this, though, I spent very little time writing at all.

Such is Christmas.

But, while my writing came to a screaming halt, my reading ploughed on come rain or shine.

So, as I write this, John Dies is far from my most recent reading memory. In fact, since finishing it, I have read five more books, and am a few pages into a sixth.

This makes for the most substantial gap between the book read and the book reviewed.

And it’s made my mind all jumbled as I go into this.

Still, the longer I put it off, the worse the situation gets.

So, I suppose I’d better try do this thing.

David Wong/ Cracked and me

Recently, I’ve been a bit crap about doing this ‘author and me’ section.

Last time out I didn’t mention the writer, and with Silence, not so long ago, I didn’t know anything about our author.

Not good enough.

I want to fix that today. But I can’t talk about David Wong alone. Not when there is an organisation with which he is so entangled. At least in my mind.

You see, I wouldn’t even know of David Wong if it wasn’t for that great institution – Cracked.

For the uninitiated, Cracked is a comedy site.

In fact, if their slogan is to be believed they are “America’s only humor site since 1958”.

This is bullshit, of course, and not least because they can’t spell humour.

But it does sum them up.

The site consists of content that is both interesting and hilarious. They cover all sorts of media but are best known for their list articles. i.e. ‘14 gaping plot holes in the fabric of the Star Wars universe‘.

I’m not sure when I first became aware of Cracked, but I’ve been a huge fan for many years now.

Many hours I’ve spent trawling their articles, and it is for this reason I became aware of David Wong. Executive editor and writer of some of my favourite pieces.

Knowing David Wong, I was always going to buy John Dies at the End when I saw it in a bookshop in America.

Even if the blurb had been shit – which it wasn’t – I would have assumed it was going to be a great book.

Which, incidentally, it was.

John Dies at the End

Even if I didn’t know David Wong, how could I not buy a book described as “a cross between Stephen King and Douglas Adams”.

At least, I think someone described it as such.

I can’t now find this particular review.

But anyway…

John Dies at the end is a horror/ comedy (horredy, if you will) about two twenty-something slackers who discover a plot to destroy the world by some seriously evil… uh, stuff.

It involves exploding people. Monsters made of meat. Monsters made of insects. Black goo stuff that makes you super intelligent, and much much more.

There’s so much going on here that it’s difficult to write a plot summary.

So, I’m not going to.

Let’s talk about some of what makes John Dies at the End exceptional, instead.

The Funny/Scary Blend

Comedy and horror are two of the hardest genres to write but, when done well, they are also the two best genres around.

Hence why Stephen King and Terry Pratchett are two of the best writers going (or gone, in Pratchett’s case).

What Wong does is seek that rare beauty of a novel that is both horrifying and hilarious at the same time.

And he succeeds.

Here is a photo of the inside cover of my copy of John Dies at the End. Notice how most of the reviews cover how it manages to be both funny and scary at the same time.

See, I wasn’t making it up.

This is, without a doubt, the real strength of John Dies.

It makes you laugh every few pages while keeping up the suspense at all times.

Throw on top of this some gruesome scenes and scares and you wonder how Wong managed to blend all these genres into one novel and get away with it.

But he did, and it works, and it’s one of the real strengths of his book.

One of.

The Plot

To succeed in getting the scares, suspense and comedy right, you could be forgiven for thinking the plot can’t be great.

Except, I don’t forgive you.

And you are wrong.

Very wrong.

Aside from being funny and scary, John Dies is also clever.

See above, where I fast gave up on writing a plot summary.

I couldn’t do it without giving things away and I didn’t want to give things away.

From the first page, the book sets up twists and turns.

When it’s not making you laugh or scaring the shit out of you, it’s making you think.

This book is a page-turner. Honest. The plot races along, and you want to find out what is going on, and see how it unravels.

When the twists start unfolding, later on, you are never disappointed, and the biggun at the end is outstanding.

I didn’t even guess it.

John Dies is not just an excuse to make jokes and throw scares around. There is a genuine plot which the laughs and scares are always in support of, not the other way around.

The End

But, let’s talk about the end.

I have, in the past, spoken about the problem of massive sets up regarding endings.

Much of the time, a writer will allow grand ideas to get away from them, and the ending won’t quite live up to the hype.

In John Dies, the end is sufficient (the twist is brilliant, as I said before) but doesn’t live up to the rest of the book.

The worst thing is, after the story ends, the book keeps going for much longer than it needs to.

This is often a problem with great books.

They don’t know how to end.

But, in the end, this end is not a downer enough to ruin the rest of the book, which has been so funny, scary and exciting from page one.

So that’s okay.

The Cast

The plot is excellent, but the real strength of this book is it’s two main characters.

David Wong (yeah, the author’s name is the primary characters name. Although, actually, the author’s name isn’t the author’s name. It’s a pseudonym. The real name of the author is Jason Pargin, but… well, it doesn’t matter. Let’s carry on) and the titular John are brilliant.

They’re both uniquely funny and engaging and help carry this plot the entire way. Neither of them is trustworthy, but both have their hearts in the right place.

We route for them throughout.

Throw two different leads in here (like Harry Potter and John McClane), and this book would not be the same book.

Neither would it be as good.

Though a film with Harry Potter and John McClane… that could be interesting.

I’d watch.

Sum Up

This book was a four out of five on Goodreads.

It was funny, scary, with a plot that keeps you engaged and guessing throughout.

The pace is excellent, and there are loads of twists and turns to keep things exciting.

The two main characters are brilliant, carrying a plot that doesn’t even need carrying.

If you love scary, funny things, get out, and get this book.

Like, right now.

Next Time

Next up is Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone.

Need I say more?

Man vs Bookshelf: The Thin Executioner

This entry is part 15 of 18 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

I’m spoiling myself now. Following on from Silence, which I didn’t enjoy, I’ve treated myself to two books I knew I’d like. One because I know the author, and one because I know the author and also I’ve read it before.

So, with Six Years out of the way, I dived into The Thin Executioner.

Darren Shan and Me

I’ve mentioned Darren Shan before.

He’s a personal hero of mine. Not only because his books are top but because of the amount he has given back to budding authors still finding their way. Especially younger ones. Teenagers and such of which I was, at one point, one.

For every book Shan has written, he has uploaded his author notes. The history of each book, how they developed and what was going on in his life at the time.

They are amazing – insightful, inspiring, and useful.

It’s because of said notes that I write so much about my writing process, as I go along. Although there is more to be gleaned from this multi-best seller than from me, a multi-seller.

I’ve read the notes for most of his books many times – saddo that I am – and went back to read those for Executioner before starting this blog.

They were enjoyable as ever, but I won’t go into them now. You can check them out yourself here, and I’d recommend doing so.

What I will mention is one part towards the beginning of the notes where Darren recounts how he got the idea for Executioner.

He was reading a Phillip Pullman book (no not one of those) and saw an image of a classic executioner.

That was it.

This one image sparked an idea which blossomed into a story.

Authors always say they don’t know where their ideas come from, and this is true. Most of the time. But, in my experience, it is always moments like this.

For my ideas, I won’t go looking. I will be minding my own business, doing whatever, and I’ll see something, or read something, and an idea for a story will pop into my mind.

Just like that.

It’s an odd thing, and not something I’ve developed or worked on. Just something that’s always happened, and it’s interesting to see that’s the case with Darren Shan as well.

I guess it’s common.

But anyway, you’re not here to hear about how I get my ideas. You’re here to hear about the Thin Executioner or, more likely, by mistake.

Well, now I’ve got you…

The Thin Executioner

Read from 05/12/2017 – 08/12/2017

 

is a story of a young boy who lives in a world that is very different and very similar to ours.

In his country the second most powerful position is executioner, and strength and courage are traits valued above all else.

Jebel is the son of incumbent executioner, Rashad. He’s in love with the High Maid, and he desires the respect of his father, his fellow countrymen, and the Gods.

But, when Rashad announces he will step down as Executioner in a years time, he snubs Jebel when discussing his successor. Mentioning only Jeb’s older brothers, who are big and strong where Jebel is small and weak.

His pride hurt, Jebel asks permission to take a quest to the home of a fire God across the continent. Here he will sacrifice a slave and, in doing so, gain ultimate power. With which he can return, become executioner, and marry the high maid.

Whether he does so or not, I wouldn’t want to spoil, so let’s review some of the book’s key aspects.

World

Most of Darren’s books are set in our world (or something close to it) with only occasional breaches into mythical lands.

So, it was interesting here to see a story set in a fantasy land.

World building is tough. You have to create a whole range of beliefs, people’s, politics etc.

Darren Shan, having not done so before, handles this task with a deft touch and excellent results.

His world contains several nations, each with their own beliefs and systems. It’s clear he has taken the time to work out everything he needs to know about the world to convey what he needs to convey to us.

Sometimes, authors can ruin a great story by telling us every little detail about their world. Even the parts that bare no relevance to the plot.

Darren avoids this. He drops enough information to immerse us in his world, without drowning us in facts.

The world unfolds in front of us, and we get to know it, but never at the cost of the story.

Story

And speaking of story…

This is good.

In most instances, I’m not a huge fan of books set outside our world. They can involve fantasy and magic and whatever else, but I like to know that wherever I am, London is no more than a day’s flight away.

The Thin Executioner takes us away from what we know but still works.

The story is fast-paced and engaging, and as I mention above, Darren doesn’t shove world down our throats.

The story is supported by the world, not the other way around. So I found it easy to work my way through this tale, without ever getting bored on the way.

Cast

Despite being set in a big world, the cast of Executioner is small.

We spend most of our time with Jebel Rum, our lead, and his slave, Tel Hessani.

Both of these characters are interesting and well fleshed out. They also work as the perfect foils for each other. Jebel is (or begins as) arrogant, cruel and narrow-minded. He is unable to understand or accept belief systems other than those he has been raised with might have merit.

Tel is the opposite. Coming from an accepting nation, he has his belief systems but understands we must be tolerant of all peoples and beliefs.

The dynamic between the two is the driving force of the book and keeps us engaged throughout.

Beyond these two there are other characters to get interested in. Most only get glancing appearances but are exciting and have their own stories.

The two most heavily featured characters are Masters Bush and Blair (yes, done on purpose). These two form an interesting contrast to most characters and races in this world. As well as forming intriguing recurring antagonists for Jebel to face.

Overall, this is an exciting cast. Focused on Jebel and Tel, but with a supporting cast that never disappoints.

Themes and messages

As a rule, I hate books (And songs and films) that are too preachy.

It’s just not what I’m there for.

Executioner has every potential to fall into this trap. The story is there to challenge Jebel’s beliefs and ideas. Through him, we are shown that tolerance is important, and execution is bad.

While it is obvious this is what Shan is doing, I don’t think these messages ever take from the story, and that’s important.

They are the story, and so not only do they not have to be shoehorned in, it would seem weird if they weren’t there.

Because of that, the preachiness gets a pass.

Sum Up

Dealing with world building and strong messages are dangerous things to do, and can lose readers if not done right.

Luckily, we are dealing with an author here who understands story comes first, and everything else must support it.

That’s what keeps this book moving and make everything else work around it.

For that reason, this book is a 4/5, and Darren Shan is one of the best YA writers out there.

Or so says I.

Next Time

Two good books in a row.

It must be time to read something a little less exciting.

Next time out I’ll be taking on The Entrepreneur’s Book of Checklists.

So… wait for that with baited breath.

Man vs Bookshelf: Devil May Care

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

This challenge has already been excellent for me.

In Horowitz Horror and Lisey’s Story I’ve now read two books that have been on my shelf for nigh on a decade, and now it’s time for Devil May Care, another unread elder of the shelf.

So, with two weeks past, I’m now ahead of schedule –

Three books down, 207 to go.

Let’s get into it.

Ian Fleming and me (and Bond)

Usually, this is the part in the blog where I talk about my previous experiences with the author, but this time around, that won’t be possible.

I’ve never read any Faulkner. I’ve heard of Bird Song (it’s about war or something? Is there even a bird?), but I’ve never read any of it.

But, of course, I’ve got a relationship with Bond, and, to a lesser extent, Ian Fleming (that’s him in the image, not Faulkner, by the way).

My dad has several of the Bond books, and I read at least the first two – Casino Royale and Live and Let Die – when I was younger.

I don’t remember much about them now, other than that we were easy reads, fast-paced, not too mentally taxing. Which can be good or bad, depending on what you’re looking for at the time.

As for the films, Brosnan was my first Bond. I watched (and loved) his Bond outings over and over as a kid. Especially the first two – GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies.

Since then I’ve watched all the Craig films as they’ve been released, as well as many of the older Bonds. At least one of each Connery, Moore and Dalton (though I’ve never seen the Lazenby one).

But, considering my limited experience of the books, what did I think of the Faulkner outing?

Devil May Care

James Bond is a British institution.

He’s up there with Sherlock Holmes, Doctor Who and Karl Pilkington.

As such, every new release tends to come with high expectations.

Not so with me.

As a lifelong fan of the England football team, I’ve learned to douse any high hopes with those things I love the most.

They say if you have low expectation, you’ll never be disappointed. This is nonsense, of course. But while you will be disappointment, at least you won’t be surprised.

So, I went into Devil May Care with low expectations.

And I wasn’t surprised.

That’s not to imply the book is rubbish. It’s not. It’s… fine. For what it is.

It may even be everything you expect from a spy thriller. I wouldn’t know, it’s not a genre I have much experience with.

Like the original Bond books, it’s fast-paced, it’s easy to read (I got through it in three days) and there is very little in the way of surprises. (Yes, there is a sort of twist but, please, who didn’t see that coming?)

I gave it a 3/5 on Goodreads, but it’s a five out of ten. A middle of the road book. It didn’t soar above my expectations but, given what I was expecting, it didn’t let me down either.

So, in assessing the book a little further, I’m going to look at how many of the ‘classic Bond tropes’ it had under three categories – the villain, the woman, and the man himself.

Note. as my experience is, in the main, with the films, not the books, I’ll be judging it against those for my tropes.

The Villain

Julian Gormer, our story’s resident maniac supervillain is about as Bond Villain as it is possible to be.

In fact, if he had turned up in another book, I wouldn’t have been able to take him seriously until James Bond – or Austin Powers – burst through the door and started fighting him.

The James Bond – Julian Gormer timeline is also as I was expecting:

Bond hears about Gormer from M, who sends Bond to investigate.

Bond arranges a meeting with Gormer where they can compete, and each pretend they don’t know who the other is. Even though they do. (Note. The competition in this instance is tennis, and I hope you like it. The game takes up about ten pages.)

Following this farce Bond later gets himself captured through his own stupidity (more on that later). Gormer’s henchman (more on him later) takes Bond to Gormer’s lair (more on that later). Where Gormer explains his plan (more on that later) before Bond escapes.

Finally, they have one last showdown, after Bond has thwarted Gormer’s ridiculous plan.

So far, so good. But how else does Gormer stack up to other Bond villains? Let’s take a look at…

The Bond Villain Checklist

  1. A physical deformity? Tick – In this case, it’s a monkey’s hand which he hides under a white glove (presumably a modified one) and is sensitive about.
  2. A brute henchman with a horrifying backstory? Tick – Chagrin. He also has a deformity. This one covered by a beret rather than a glove, presumably because a glove would look silly draped over his face. He loves tearing people’s tongues out with pliers and smashing their eardrums with chopsticks. He underwent surgery to have his emotions removed (or something), and as a result, his ability to feel pain has been damaged. Something which is never plot relevant.
  3. An underground lair? Tick – Yep, hidden in the deserts of Iran. It’s here he produces and ships out vast quantities of heroin and assorted drugs, yet no one can find it. Go figure.
  4. A ridiculous plan with ridiculous motivation? Tick – Julian hates Britain because he felt bullied when he went to university there. So, of course, he wants to destroy the country and everyone in it. Reasonable. At first, he planned to do this by flooding the country with drugs. When that wasn’t killing Britain fast enough, he resorted to Plan B, which was even more mental. Attacking Stalingrad and the centre of Soviet Union nuclear operations to provoke them into nuking London. Why would the Soviets blame the British? Well because his very none British crew (killed on arrival) will be carrying British passports. Duh! To call all this an overreaction to being bullied in university would be a horrific understatement.
  5. A desire to explain his plan in meticulous detail to the rea- Bond? Tick – Yes! He spells out the whole thing without realising how mental he is and calling the entire thing off.
  6. A gruesome death – Yeah. It’s pretty gruesome. Serves him right, really.

The Woman

Ah, yes, what is Bond without his girls? Not quite as commercially successful, I’d imagine.

Our Bond Girl in Devil May Care is not unlike the ones I’ve become used to since I started watching and reading Bond. Jaw-droppingly beautiful, smart, able to survive almost anything and complete with an incredible ability to fall in love with Bond on their first meeting.

What differs here from a lot of other Bond stories is A) Scarlett is the only girl. (Most Brosnan films he’d bedded one girl before the opening credits rolled) and B) He falls in love with her, which feels wrong for any Bond, let alone a sixties Bond (people didn’t fall in love in the sixties, I know, I did a History degree)

The Man Himself

Bond, James Bond.

Corr, I get shivers just uttering those words. The world’s worst secret agent.

Here he is… quite flat. I’m not sure I’d remember his as the main protagonist was he not the famous James Bond.

He walks, he talks, he moves the plot along, he gives the occasional quip, but that’s about it.

He is also prone to some bouts of incredible stupidity. As I read these days, I write notes of anything interesting that comes to mind. Usually, I don’t even use them, but one note I’ve written here is: “Ch 11 – dumb plan what a twat.”

I don’t even have to look back to know what that’s referring to.

I know Bond gets captured every book/film and, yes, that’s bad enough. Someone should just kill him. But he doesn’t help himself with plans like this:

Having broken into a hanger to find Julian’s weapon, he has to do a runner because there are guards and because he didn’t bring his camera…

So he about escapes, and when he has time to regroup, what does he decide he’s going to do next?

Come back the next day.

And that’s exactly what he does. He comes down to the compound the next day, picks the lock, walks right in and then – oh my God there are about 100 men with guns waiting, what a shock!

Seriously, why isn’t this man dead?

Next time

Moving on from the world of spies, fast-paced plots and clunky writing (sorry Sebastian) we’re heading to Sydney for our next read.

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarty.

See you then.