Man vs Bookshelf: Confessions of a Sociopath

This entry is part 12 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

I bought Confessions of a Sociopath on 25th September 2014.

That’s over three years ago at the time of writing so, yes, this was another one that sat on the shelf for a long time.

How do I know the exact date for once?

You may think something monumental must have happened on that day. I got my dream job or Emma Stone professed her undying love for me.

If only.

In actual fact, I know the date because I left the receipt in the book after purchase.

Super boring explanation but there it is.

I remember picking it up in the W.H. Smith at Reading train station. Grabbed by the interesting concept and not much else.

I don’t remember where I was going but assume it was to see my ex down Brighton way.

The receipt tells me I also purchased some Buxton water, a paper (the I) and some Max crisps.

Fascinating, right?

But I never did read the book on the train. Don’t know why.

Maybe there was a lot going on in the news that day or, more likely; I got distracted by my phone.

Whatever the case, the book stayed in my bag, returning to my shelf when I got home.

There it remained, unread until…

Doing this challenge I have to pick up something every few days no matter what. But Confessions was no random pick.

Come November, National Novel Writing Month began, and I threw myself into a new first draft.

Said draft involved a sociopathic character, and I wanted to get them right.

Usually, I don’t bother with things like this in first drafts. I write away and fix any and all problems in post.

Not so this time.

I’m interested in sociopathy anyway, so for my character, I began reading articles. Learning about the many traits of sociopaths and incorporating them into my character.

The articles were a great start, but I wanted something longer. It was this that led me to remember Confessions and pick it up once more. Adding it to my list of the next few books I’m going to read.

So it was interesting going into this book. It was the first one I picked up not for enjoyment alone, or for the challenge. It also served research purposes for my writing.

This led to me reading the text a little more critically, and probably contributed to it being a slow read.

That and the fact I took two days off in the middle of reading it.

Not a good idea.

But I still finished it in the seven days I allow myself, and was left with a new perspective on sociopaths.

Here is what I thought of that.

M.E. Thomas and Me

M.E. and I don’t have a previous relationship for obvious reasons.

She is a successful U.S. Based lawyer, and I am an unsuccessful English based author.

Having already outlined my reasons for picking up this book, there’s not much more to stay here.

This section’s only present for form’s sake if I’m honest.

So, uh, moving swiftly on.

Confessions of a Sociopath

Read from: 22/11/2017 to: 28/11/2017

Confessions turned out to be almost as interesting as it was useful shaping my own sociopath. Character that is.

It offered a unique perspective on sociopaths (from inside the mind of one), and that was a real draw.

I gave it a three out of five on Goodreads.

It was a good read (ha), but it was not mind-blowing. It had its issues (the main one of which I will discuss below), but I think it nailed what it was aiming to do.

The book has two main aspects, the psychological analysis of sociopathy in general and the memoirs of our hero, M.E. Thomas.

I’ll look at each of these in turn, before going into my big negative of the book and my summary.

The Psychology Stuff

M.E. has spent a lot of time looking into the psychology of sociopaths. Covering the last 100 years or more to give a real depth of opinion.

For example, she shows people used to link sociopathy with homosexuality. A biased opinion driven by a predisposition to assume the gay community was evil.

But even as the research grew less biased it always seems to have leant towards a negative view of sociopathy.

This is understandable in many ways.

Sociopaths share many traits society recognises as ‘bad’. The inability to relate to other people or feel guilt, for example. Or their inherent narcissism and self-interest at the cost of all others.

However, what M.E. Seeks to show is that just because these traits are present, doesn’t make sociopaths bad people.

I won’t go into the research in great detail here, but with case studies from her own blog and plenty of official research papers, M.E. Shows that sociopaths can be good, useful, and downright successful, and are not predisposed to becoming psycho killers, as the media might have you believe.

This look into sociopathy really did make me reconsider my own preconceptions of people afflicted with this disorder and what it means for them.

The Memoir Stuff

M.E. frames her research within a memoir of her own life. This ranges from her difficult childhood to her struggles as an adult, coming to terms with her condition and later overcoming it.

As with the research, the stories from M.E.’s life made me reconsider my thoughts on sociopathy.

Yes, she comes across as arrogant, conceited, manipulative, and hurtful. But she is upfront about all these things, and it is not the be all and end all.

What surprised me was her discussions on how much she struggled with her condition before she understood it. The way it ripped her life apart, leaving her to fight to get it back on track.

It showed a level of emotion I had not thought sociopaths capable of. Something added to by her revelation that she does feel love. Especially for children.

So the memoir was fascinating, and the anecdotes often exciting, but there was one big caveat.

Repetitivey Repetitiveness

Throughout the book, M.E. had a real problem with repetition.

A real problem.

See what I did there.

Many passages I felt like I was reading the same story or message again, rephrased.

Don’t get me wrong, the stories and information were interesting the first time.

But I didn’t need to hear it again.

And again.

And again.

This repetition held the book back, I thought.

I ended up flicking through pages, skipping the same out stuff. It made me think the book could have been quite a bit shorter, without impacting the quality.

In fact, it could have enhanced it.

Summary

This book was a three out of five on Goodreads.

I think that’s fair.

It was interesting and original but suffered from retreading old ground too often.

If you have the slightest interest in the subject matter (or if you think you might), I’d recommend giving Confessions ago.

I wasn’t disappointed.

Next time

Next up, a book I couldn’t wait to get out the way.

But was it as bad as I thought?

Find out in a few days with my Silence review

Man vs Bookshelf: The Escape

This entry is part 10 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Another day, another review.

As I mentioned in my last review (whenever that came out. I’m about to move it at the time of writing to make room for something else) I’m dealing with quite a backlog of books.

I started ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ review having already finished The Escape, and started I Am Legend.

By the time I finished, I had read I Am Legend and began Confessions of a Sociopath. Something I didn’t mention in the final Cuckoo post because it ruined one of the jokes.

Going into this review, I have the same problem, with two other books contending for space in my head. The only good news is Sociopath has been quite slow going. If I’d started another book the confusion would become so bad my head would explode. In a bad way.

Confusion aside, there is another problem with these reviews. That being the disconnect between finishing a book and posting a review.

My worry is, should I ever get any readers who don’t live with me, people will notice that ‘Week 8’ is in ‘Week 10’ and such.

For example, I finished ‘The Escape’ on 19th November (that’s 2017, for future readers) but I’m typing this on the 26th.

That’s already almost a week out, and it only gets worse.

As I said above, I’ve had to move Cuckoo because I’ve finished my book for National Novel Writing Month. This now won’t come out until the 28th, and I’ve got another blog on the 1st Dec so Escape won’t be out until at least the 3rd.

You see my problem. The review is out almost two weeks after I finished reading it, and when people notice…

Cue mass hysteria.

So, to combat this farce, I’ll be writing the reading dates of each book at the beginning of the review.

See, it’s quite a simple solution.

Now, with that explanation out of the way, we’re almost ready to get on with this week’s review.

But first…

Robert Muchamore and Me

Having read 11 Cherub books, you might have thought I would look at The Escape and say ‘I can’t take Muchamore of this’.

No, you wouldn’t.

I just wanted to get that joke in.

Now we can move on.

When I was growing up Darren Shan was, for a long time, my favourite author.

My friend, Mohsin, introduced me to the Saga of Darren Shan (Cirque Du Freak for my American readers) at school.

From the first book, I loved the series, and I loved Darren Shan.

Fast paced. Action packed. Gory. They were great for kids, young adults, and, I assume, for getting boys into reading.

Sometime later, I discovered the CHERUB series by Robert Muchamore. And, sorry Shan, there was a new favourite writer in town.

I don’t know when I first picked up CHERUB book, The Recruit, but I knew I’d love the series from the get go.

It was a pull no punches series. It was more grown up. There was swearing and talk of tits and sex and all that stuff teenagers actually talk about. I loved it.

Given this, and the fact I waited with baited breath for each new Muchamore book to land, you’d have thought I’d have pounced on The Escape.

But I never read it.

I’ve been thinking about why this is, and I guess it’s to do with the time in which it is set, and the characters.

I did a History Degree at uni (college to my American readers) so I can’t stand anything set in the past. Duh. So, that put me off, but it wasn’t the main reason.

One of the big draws of the CHERUB series was its cast of characters. James Adams and co. were all so brilliant and, over 11 books, I became fully invested in them.

So invested that I couldn’t stomach the thought of reading about different characters.

So I didn’t read it. The book remained on my shelf while I read those other CHERUB books on repeat.

Until now.

The Escape

Read from: 19/11/2017 to: 19/11/2017

This is a short(ish) book, and it could be a short(ish) review.

The Escape is set early in World War II. The Nazis are in France, advancing across the country with their famed Blitzkrieg tactic. The Government abandon Paris upon realising they don’t want to be blown up. The whole country is in panic.

Within this historical setting, Robert introduces us to three children. Each struggling along in wartime France.

First, there’s Marc, a French boy (hey come on, give him a chance). Marc has grown up in an orphanage where he is frequently abused by The Director.

When the Germans arrive in town, Marc uses the commotion to escape. He steals a bike, food and money from the Director and flees south to Paris. Here he sets up camp in a house that turns out to belong to British Agent, Charles Henderson.

After Marc overhears valuable Gestapo information, Charles takes him on a mission. Together they seek to stop the Germans getting hold of vital plans that could shift the way in their favour.

These plans just so happen to be in the hands of Paul and Rosie. Two kids fleeing south from Paris, hoping to get a boat to England from Bordeaux to get the plans to safety.

The narrative beautifully bounces between these two stories until the climax, when they are finally brought together as a German spy attempts to get to the plans before Marc and Henderson.

The book is a speed read. We follow both Marc and Paul and Rosie as they run from the German’s, get into scrapes, and help with the war effort.

All my fears about not liking this because it was set in the past and didn’t feature a CHERUB cast were unwarranted.

This book brings in a new and exciting cast. The kids are smart, different, and worth investing in. Charles Henderson is not some boring parental figure. He’s shocking and violent and puts getting the job done above all else.

If and when I have children, this is the book I will give them when they start to hit their teenage years. There is no better series for getting kids into reading, I wouldn’t have thought.

I gave The Escape a four out of five on Goodreads, and well earned it was.

Later in this challenge, I will read the remaining CHERUB books, and I can’t wait. But I’m going to hold off for now.

I want something to look forward to, after all.

Next Time

This has been a shorter review (with no subtitles!) but hey, that means you get to go back to whatever interesting stuff you were supposed to do this afternoon sooner, right?

But, while you’re doing that, you can be thinking about the next review, coming soon.

It’s I Am Legend, hero of the Horror genre and inspiration to writers such as Stephen King and films such as Dawn of the Living Dead.

See you then.

Man vs Bookshelf: The Cuckoo’s Calling

This entry is part 9 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

The problem with these blogs is that some of the time, they take longer to write than it takes to read the books.

This leads to me falling behind in my writing and creates a backlog of books I have to review.

The net result of which is a jumble of plots and points clogging up my mind-head when I come to write my review.

As I write this blog, I have not only finished The Cuckoo’s Calling, but also The Escape by Robert Muchamore. Plus, I’m part way through Richard Matherson’s I Am Legend.

Very confusing.

So, if I start talking about Strike using child spies to defeat vampires, please forgive me.

(Side note. The joke above works on presumed knowledge. If this knowledge is missing, you will not find it funny. As we all know, explaining jokes only makes them funnier. So, what I’ll do is arm you with the three key pieces of knowledge you need to find the above joke funny.

First, Strike is the lead character in the Cuckoo’s Calling.

Second, Robert Muchamore writes about child spies.

Third, I Am Legend is about vampires – more or less.

Now, please return to the joke above and laugh for the appropriate amount of time. Then we’ll continue.

Thank you.)

Now, following that pointless digression, let’s get into it.

Robert Galbraith and Me

I have a suspicion.

I suspect – and bear with me on this – that Robert Galbraith may well be a pseudonym for J.K. Rowling.

No, I’m not mad.

There are many reasons for such suspicions. But here are the top three:

  • The writing style of Cuckoo’s calling is reminiscent of Harry Potter – I.e. lots of adverbs, not least the very annoying ‘coolly.’
  • The book jacket says that Rowling is Galbraith.
  • It’s common knowledge.

If anyone can confirm my suspicion, that would be good.

Whatever the case, I will not be discussing Rowling now. I have all the Potter books on my shelves, and I don’t want to waste good copy ahead of time.

As for Robert Galbraith, I had heard of Cormoran Strike but always held off reading any.

I don’t read a lot of detective fiction and, when I do, it’s all by Harlen Coben. This because they are funny, fast-paced, and my mother made me pick one up one time.

I only considered reading Cuckoo when, a few months ago, I decided to write a PI novel myself.

Soon after, my parents spotted The Cuckoo’s Calling in a charity shop and bought it for me.

In the end, I didn’t read it. I did write the first draft of my PI novel but shelved it in favour of Poor Choices. I may go back to it at some point, but then there seemed to be no need for reading Cuckoo. Enjoyment, it seems, never entered my mind.

Then the challenge began, and I’ve picked up Cuckoo early. I don’t know why, but does it matter? Point is I read it.

So let’s get into the bloody review.

The Cuckoo’s Calling

As I say, I’m not much into detective novels, but I much prefer your non-police based murder mysteries, like this.

And, almost surprisingly, I did like this book. A lot. Enough, in fact, to give it a 4/5 on Goodreads. As well as marking as ‘want to read’ the next couple of books in the series. Although, as a result of this challenge, I won’t be able to for some years.

So what made it so good? I suppose there are two things to look at here, “the Detective” and “the Mystery”.

Let’s do that.

The Detective

Picture Shows: Cormoran Strike (TOM BURKE) – (C) Bronte Film & TV Ltd – Photographer: Steffan Hill

Cormoran Strike is your textbook detective.

In fact, if you wrote a detective traits checklist he would nail it on every account. He has:

  • Internal damage. See: his upbringing, his mental ex-fiancee, his rock star father.
  • External damage. See: his very literal lack of a leg, his bruises as a result of his break up
  • No money. See: uh, his lack of money. He’s living in his office on a camp bed, for one. Readers must hate detectives with money. I don’t know why.
  • No girlfriend. See: his break up at the beginning of the book. This allows him to be a classic loner and opens up more avenues for sexual tension. Yippee, say sex craved readers everywhere

This laundry list of traits is often seen as a requirement for good detectives, but I have a problem with it.

Writers use these troupes to try and build a character that is, in truth, only a vehicle for the plot. It’s fake, and see through.

That’s what I like about Harlen Coben’s Myron Bolitar. He’s different. He’s healthy. He’s wealthy. He has two loving parents. He even has friends (gasp).

He has a distinctive personality. He doesn’t feel like a blank-faced character who could be anyone, dropped into an interesting plot.

Because that causes problems. Your cookie cutter detectives do not work. It doesn’t matter how good your plot is. We need a character we can invest in.

Strike, by the skill of J.K.’s writing, avoids these problems.

He is more than the sum of his parts. He is troubled and funny, and he can be nasty and compassionate, and he’s smart and, at times, unsure and a bit socially awkward.

We, the audience, empathise with him. We like following him on his investigation. We want him to succeed.

That’s what makes a great detective.

Picture Shows: Robin Ellacott (HOLLIDAY GRAINGER) – (C) Bronte Film & TV Ltd – Photographer: Steffan Hill

It’s also worth mentioning the sidekick, I suppose.

Robin (the female kind, not the friend of Batman kind, or the bird) is a decent character. She’s intelligent, she’s attractive, and she has a childlike awe with the workings of our detective. On account of wanting to be one as a child.

The only problem is she doesn’t get a lot of screen time.

Watson and Holmes seem to be joined at the hip, and this is often the case with detectives and their accomplices.

Strike, though, does most of his work alone. That meant we don’t get to see much of Robin and it was harder to form an attachment to her.

What we got was good enough though, and I’m sure she’ll get more time in later books.

The Mystery

I said before that a mystery, however good, is still boring without a decent detective.

This is also true in reverse.

A good detective cannot cover up a boring mystery.

Luckily, Robert/ J.K. has worked hard on his/her plot.

It’s a long book, and I did fear there might be a lot of unnecessary scenes in there that did not add to the mystery.

This would not be unusual for the author. (I don’t care what she says, there is no way The Order of the Phoenix needed to be 8,300,000 pages).

But, in this case, the plotting felt tight, and the pace was perfect, despite it being carried out over 550 pages.

The mystery and client arrive early and, from then on, pretty much everything is relevant to the case.

Even when Strike goes to his ex’s house or his nephew’s party, it is always brought back to the mystery.

Chekhov said: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.”

This is good advice, and something Rowling has always been great at following.

Here, things you think cannot possibly be relevant, become so. J.K. is, as she has always been, great at foreshadowing.

And so the mystery rattles along at high pace. The story, led by its interesting detective, becomes quite the page turner and, until the end, I had no idea who did it.

Many suspects are set up and, until the final confrontation, at least four people still could have done it.

This reveal and final confrontation also work fantastically.

This is something I was not expecting because the plot is so good.

I know that sounds an odd thing to say, but bear with me.

In mysteries where the plot is so fantastic, the journey often becomes everything. And, as a result, the reveal is a letdown, no matter whodunnit.

This has been my experience with a couple of Coben books and also with the Netflix series Scream. All brilliant works, but with endings that failed to live up to what came before.

With Cuckoo, though, the ending does stack up to the rest of the book. The explanation is well done. It works. And I was not disappointed by the way it panned out.

So, we learn. Great detective + great mystery + effective reveal = great book.

Once this challenge is over (assuming we are not living in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world by then) I look forward to reading the next books in the series.

One more thing

I don’t like Rugby.

It’s nowt to feel guilty about. It just means I steer away from writing about it in my books.

I think Robert/ J.K. should have stuck away from Football for the same reason.

At one point Strike sits down on a Saturday, turns on the telly and watches the Arsenal vs Tottenham game at three.

Ehhhh, no?

In England (And this is set in modern-day England) we have a ban on showing Football matched between three and five.

It’s a real pain in the arse.

So, J.K., next time, maybe, do a bit more research?

Or, leave football out of it all together.

That’s cool.

Other than that wicked book, thanks.

Next time

Spoiler alert above on this.

I’ve already said I’ve finished the Escape, and I’ll get into writing about that real soon, I promise.

See you then.

Man vs Bookshelf: Grandpa’s Great Escape

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

After struggling to get through Good Omens in the allotted time, I wanted to dive into a quick read.

I choose Grandpa’s Great Escape. It may look beefy, and weigh in at over 450 pages, but don’t let that fool you. It is, after all, a kiddies book, and thus utilises BIG words and plenty of pictures.

So I intended it to pose no problems, and it didn’t, as I raced through it in three days.

Nice and easy.

So what did I think?

David Walliams and Me

If you had asked me twelve years ago if I could see Little Britain’s David Walliams writing successful children’s books I would have asked you who you were and what you were doing in my school.

Totally inappropriate.

I suppose it’s not that weird to think that David Walliams is now writing children’s books.

Yes, Little Britain and Come Fly With Me were utterly inappropriate for kids, but that kind of irreverent toilet humour is ripe for translation into the type of books David Walliams now writes.

So, when I heard Walliams was writing fab kid’s books, I wasn’t surprised. Not only that, but I was keen to give them a go.

Now, full disclosure, I’m not a child.

Well, not in a legal sense, anyway.

Nor do I know any children to whom I could read these stories. But, if you think kids books are for kids and kids alone, you are a poop (ha!)

Kids fiction is at its best when it works on two levels. One for adults, one for kids. After all, it’s the adults that read the books to their kids, so it has to work for them.

And, when it’s top notch, it transcends age boundaries altogether.

Remember, Harry Potter was a kids book once.

(If you haven’t heard of Harry Potter, it is a series of books about a boy wizard. It was initially intended for children but has achieved a reasonable level of success across all age groups in the past twenty years, having sold at least forty trillion copies.)

So I was ready to give Walliams a go, and my girlfriend was kind enough to buy me three of his stand-alone stories. The Boy in the Dress, Gangsta Granny, and Grandpa’s Great Escape.

Grandpa’s Great Escape

‘Grandpa’ was the third of the three Walliam’s books I read.

Set in the 1980’s, it is the tale of Jack and his Grandpa, a World War II pilot who now suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. When Jack’s parent feel they can no longer look after Grandpa, he is moved to the old people’s home, Twilight Towers, run by Miss Swine.

When it becomes clear that Miss Swine is mistreating her wards for person gain, Jack must help his Grandpa make a daring escape. An escape that, if successful, will give Grandpa a final chance to relive his past and once again take to the sky in his beloved Spitfire.

As with Gangsta Granny and The Boy in the Dress, this is a fast-paced, exciting read, and ‘Grandpa’ is certainly the most action-packed book of the trio, racing from set piece to set piece without ever losing the heart of the novel.

It’s also – as the others were – funny. There’s plenty here for kids – fart and poop jokes – but also for adults. The sly humour that kids won’t notice and only adults will get. Always very well done.

Based on humour and pace alone, it’s easy to see why children and parents have fallen in love with Walliams’ books, but there is something else he achieves in his writing I find so impressive.

Dealing with ‘adult topics’.

I don’t read a lot of children’s fiction, but I imagine many writers shy away from the issues Walliams utilises in his books.

The story of Grandpa’s Great Escape is all about Jack helping his Grandfather escape the horrible old people’s home – Twilight Towers.

This, alone, makes for a great story, but it’s the framework, and the heart of the tale, that really sets it apart.

See, as mentioned above, Grandpa is inflicted with Alzheimer’s. Now, this is a horrible illness, and one I can imagine is difficult to convey to children in a way they can understand.

Walliams’ does it brilliantly. It is not shoehorned in as some idealistic message, tacked on to the story. It is the story. It drives the plot along. Nothing happens if not for Grandpa’s illness, and we, the reader, are never left in any doubt that this is the case.

What is particularly touching is that, given Grandpa’s condition, grandson Jack is the only one who can communicate with him. By learning to live in Grandpa’s memories with him, Jack can help grandpa more than anyone else. He coaxes the elder down from great heights when he – grandpa – believes he is in his Spitfire and he – Jack – understands that, just because Twilight Towers is not Colditz Castle, does not mean it is not a horrible place, worth escaping.

This entangling of adventure and illness sets up a beautiful – and emotional – finale, which I won’t ruin here. But is thoroughly earned and the perfect culmination of everything that has gone before.

I’m not ashamed to say; it would make some people teary.

Not me though. I’m well manly, and this isn’t Lion King.

No matter how popular Walliams gets, a lot of people will be put off these books because of Little Britain, or Come Fly With Me, or because you’re not a twelve-year-old boy.

Don’t be put off.

Pick up a Walliams book.

Give it a go.

You won’t regret it.

“Hang on, before you go…”

Yes, yes, yes, I know what you’re going to ask, why did I give it a 3/5 on Goodreads?

I don’t know, to be honest. I probably should have given it a 4. If it had been a ten point scale I would have given it a seven.

Hey, have I mentioned how much I hate Goodreads’ five-point scale before?

Next Time

We’re going away from fiction next time out as I will be reading the first of two Brian Clough autobiographies I have.

I hope I’m reading the first released, but it’s hard to tell.

See you then!

Man vs Bookshelf: Good Omens

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

For a time it seemed ‘Good Omens’ might be a bad omen.

A terrible omen.

I was sure I’d never finish it in a week. I got three days in, with Sunday gone, and I wasn’t even halfway there.

I saw it all unfold before me. I would finish Good Omens on Thursday, a day too late. I would put it into my spreadsheet, and there it would be. This big, chasm-like gap in the cell next to “Week 3”.

It wouldn’t matter that I finished three books in week two, either. That isn’t the point. If I start throwing it all away after one good run, you might as well call me Man United.

No, an empty week was not an acceptable outcome.

So, I did what I had to do; I tend only to read before bed, but this turn of events took more extreme measures.

I read on the bus on the way to work. I stopped in Costa before work and read some more. I returned to Costa at lunch and, again, read some more.

Now we were kicking. I was flying through pages and, by the end of Monday, I felt much better. If I kept up reading at lunch and before work on Tuesday and Wednesday, on top of the usual before bed pages, I’d get it done.

I would not shame my family.

Still, disaster almost struck, when I returned to Costa at lunch on Tuesday.

There sat one of my colleagues, bold as brass, drinking coffee and smiling all innocent. Like she didn’t know what she was doing.

But she did. She knew of my challenge, and she wanted to quash it. Because what could I do? Step into Costa, and I’d have to sit and talk. Leave, and I had nowhere else to go.

It was lose-lose.

I slunk away. Deflated and defeated. Back in the office, I read a few more pages. Arms wrapped around my book, hiding it from the office as though it was a baby in a room full of kidnappers. It wasn’t great, but it was better than nothing.

By Tuesday evening, worry had set in. Wednesday was looming and with it a trip to IKEA (to get a bookshelf, of all things!) and another episode of the Apprentice. I was floundering. Afraid.

I wasn’t going to make it.

How would I look my mother in the eye?

[Pause for dramatic effect.]

Oh, but then I did it.

Yeah, I read the last 150 pages on Tuesday night like it wasn’t even a thing.

So, uh, turned out I was making a lot of fuss about nothing.

Pretty unusual for me [wink]

In the end, it took me six days, and a lot of complaining. But at least it gives me something to write about, and that’s what you’re all here for, right?

Unless, of course, you stumbled here by mistake looking for Man vs Boobshelf.

If so, I apologise.

This must be mighty disappointing for you.

No boobs in this post.

Sorry.

Anyway…

Review below

 

Terry Pratchett and Me

Haha, tricked you.

First, let’s talk about the writers.

For me, Terry Pratchett is a lot like Stephen King. From an early age, I loved humour fiction, as I did horror, and I knew there was a giant in the game I was missing.

In this case, that giant was Terry Pratchett.

As with King, I tried to like Pratchett. My step-granddad is a huge fan. Has every book he ever wrote, and I tried a few myself in time. Getting the furthest through The Colour of Magic, the first Discworld Novel.

But I could never get into them. My reading palette hadn’t developed enough. I wasn’t ready to appreciate the brilliance of Terry Pratchett.

And he is, by the way, brilliant.

I can’t remember why I went back to The Colour of Magic. Whether I kept hold of it or had to rebuy it. But, whatever the case, I picked it up again in my early twenties and gave it a go.

I loved it. Loved it so much I smashed through The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites straight after.

I stopped then. God knows why because I have Mort and Sourcery waiting for me, but it wasn’t for lack of enjoyment. I’m looking forward to hitting them later in the challenge.

For now, though, I decided to start with a book I’ve had much longer than any other Pratchett book.

And it wasn’t even written by him alone.

 

Neil Gaiman and Me

From early on, I had it in my head that I didn’t like Neil Gaiman.

I don’t know why. I don’t even think I read anything by him. But I was sure, judgemental bastard that I am, that I didn’t like him.

Sorry, Neil.

For this reason, I avoided his books like the plague for a long time. It was only when Amazon released American Gods as a show that I ended up picking up a Gaiman book.

The show hadn’t begun, and I was in an airport ready to fly back from holiday. I saw American Gods and thought “why not” it’s a neat shape.

So I bought it.

I read the first third on the plane, but after that, it took me a while to finish.

Even so, when I did, I had enjoyed it. Enjoyed it quite a lot, actually. Enough to make me reassess my previous, un-explainable, hatred for Gaiman and his works.

It’s down to that I picked up Good Omens so early in the challenge. I knew it was a cult classic. I knew I liked the authors.

Now, I wanted to give it a go for myself.

 

Good Omens

You’ll be sick of me saying this soon (now) but… I have had Good Omens a long time.

Long before I ever picked up a book written by either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett alone.

It’s also older than a lot of the books on my shelf. I don’t really go in for the classics (Except the Outsides from 1967, which is incredible) so 1990 is about the limit.

But that’s all general points and relates nowt to the vital question:

What did I think of the Book?

Yeah, it was alright.

I gave it a three on Goodreads but only because Goodreads insist on limiting me to a ten-point scale. If Goodreads did use a ten-point scale, the book would have tempted me to give it a seven.

(Side note.

Question: how many times I’m going to mention my distaste for Goodreads’ five points system?

Answer: At least 210 times. Sorry.)

But, yes. The book is slow to get going, and the ending is a bit duff, but it was clever. It flowed well. It was funny. And the plotting is outstanding. Especially considering the amount of authors it has.

 

The Humour

As discussed, I’ve not read much Neil Gaiman. What I have read – American Gods – was not supposed to be funny. Unless I didn’t get it at all, that is. So, I can’t testify whether his sense of shines through here.

What I can say is this book is dripping with the kind of humour featured in Discworld. So, if you like that, as I do, you’ll be in safe hands. This despite the fact the book is set on Earth, rather than a fantasy world.

Gaiman and Pratchett have said they went into this book not hoping to make a smash hit, but to make each other laugh.

This shows. Comedy is front and centre here, and it works all the way through.

There are genuine laugh out loud moments. The kind that makes you want to turn to your other half and read them to her.

Even though she isn’t all that interested.

Sorry about that.

 

The Structure

Good Omens is slow to get going, but it becomes clear why this has to be the case as the plot progresses.

The story is not complex, per se, but it does have a lot of moving parts. A large cast of characters, all with their own stories, all travelling towards one location and climax.

This – the act of bringing so many moving parts together for the climax of a novel – is difficult to do alone. I can’t imagine making it work with two authors working together.

The fact that it does work is a clear testament to their strong relationship. Not to mention their respective talent as authors in their own rights.

The result of this clever plotting is a funny book that gets faster paced as it goes along. It creates a story that is an easy but exciting read.

From start to… well, from start to climax

 

The Ending

I recently read an article ranking forty Discworld novels. One point it made was that Pratchett wrote excellent books… but often with weak endings.

This is in clear evidence here, and it’s something I like to call “The Doctor Who Principle”.

The issue here is we have such a massive setup. The end of the world, no less.

But the problem with such setups is they are so big; it can be hard to end them satisfyingly.

This is especially true in media and literature where the heroes are not fighters, so there can be no battle.

I use Doctor Who as an example because he doesn’t fight. So it doesn’t matter if he’s facing one Dalek or a billion. At the end of it all, there will be some quick switch. Some mega button and all the foes will die at once.

It has to be that way, because of the nature of the show, but it’s something that has often left me unsatisfied.

It’s the same here. The good guys come up against the bad guys, and in one fell swoop, the bad guys are defeated.

By this point, the end of the world has been set in motion, but again, one line of text, and it is all solved.

It’s the one shame of the book. It works so hard to get so many characters together for this climax, all for there to be no real “final battle”.

It’s a disappointing end, but the book gets away with it. The rest is so good that you have to forgive it.

So while it’s one thing I would change, I don’t think it diminishes the effect of the book. And I would still recommend Good Omens to any fans of Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett that have not yet read it.

Maybe it’s not one for Christians, though.

Just a thought.

Next time

We’re sticking with the funny for a third book in a row next time out, but changing age group.

It’s Grandpa’s Great Escape by David Walliams.

Man vs Bookshelf: Big Little Lies

This entry is part 5 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Here we are, back again for book four of my Man vs Bookshelf challenge and, so far, I’ve been racing through.

I finished Big Little Lies on Wednesday, 14 days after this challenge began.

That’s two books a week rather than the one a week needed to stay on target.

Pretty effin good.

I don’t expect the pace to keep up, of course, but it’s good to get ahead early on.

Anyway, so, book 4, Big Little Lies, is done, and what did I think of it?

Liane Moriarty and me

Usually, at this point, I’d talk about my past experiences with the author or, as with the last book, the character.

But I can’t do that this time around because I don’t have any past experiences. With author or characters.

In fact, I’d never even heard of Liane Moriarty before I heard of Big Little Lies.

Like many people, I guess, I only heard of Big Little Lies because of the Nicole Kidman-Reese Witherspoon TV show.

I did consider watching the show but something drew me to the book. I picked it up in Tesco and, for whatever reason, bought it. I don’t remember the blurb blowing me away.

More likely I had too much other TV to watch first, so took a punt on the book.

Turns out, it was a fantastic decision.

Big Little Lies

I gave Big Little Lies a 4/5 and I regret it.

80%. How is that fair?

I don’t want to bang on about Goodreads and their stupid 5-point scale but also I’m going to.

This book deserved at least a nine. But I cant justify giving something 100%. That’s ridiculous. Nothing is perfect.

4/5. I have to live with that forever.

I should have just given it a five.

This is the first book in my challenge that has made me hate Man vs Bookshelf with a passion.

Not because it was so bad and I knew I had to get through it. Because I now want to read every single thing Liane has ever written and I’M NOT ALLOWED FOR LIKE FOUR YEARS.

That alone is indicative of how good this book is. It’s well written, the characters are great, the central mystery is compelling and it’s very very funny.

For anyone out there yet to read it – whether you think you’ll like it or not – I implore you to give it a go.

Except, of course, if it’s going to get in the way of you reading my book.

Structure

So thinking about what works well in the book, the structure comes to mind immediately.

Using a flash forward of a murder then going back and building up to it is a well-worn writing tactic, but it’s risky. Get it wrong and it fails in its aim building suspense and excitement for the audience. Worse, fail to hit the mark, and it looks like a cheap, tacky trick.

Liane Moriarty doesn’t get it wrong, though. She pulls it off with aplomb (assuming “aplomb” is good)

We know from the beginning there has been a murder, but we don’t know who, by whom, or why. We then jump back six months and for the rest of the book we are counting down to the murder through handy headings. “Four months to Trivia Night” etc.

The affect is further enhanced through “talking head” style journalist interviews. All with people there on the night of the murder. These both serve to build suspense and to be funny as fuck. Especially when it comes to Samantha. I love Samantha.

It’s clever too. I’m great at guessing twists and mysteries, usually, but I didn’t guess this. I didn’t know who had done the killing or even who got killed until Liane was kind enough to tell me.

Even more important. When the climax and reveal came, I wasn’t disappointed. Throughout the night of the murder, when I knew it was coming, my heart was pounding. By the time we arrived at the point I knew it was about to happen, it was beating so fast you might have thought I feared for my own life. Not to mention I was turning pages so fast I was tearing pages out. And it was my bedtime!

I was desperate to find out.

Then I did, and it was as satisfying as I’d expected.

 That’s how well the structure works.

Humour in the tough stuff

This is a very funny book. I cannot stress that enough. And what Liane excels at is making some difficult subject matter funny.

It’s a strange thing about comedy. There are some ‘dark’ topics that are easy to make funny and some that are more difficult to pull off.

Murder, for example, has always been a great source of comedy, and Liane uses this.

One more difficult is domestic abuse. Yet one of our leads here is being abused by her husband. Real dodgy ground for comedy that.

But Liane pulls it off.

And it’s more than that. She keeps it funny without diminishing the effect of the storyline. The way she portrays the struggle of our abused lead is so well done. It’s not your standard brute alcoholic husband beating his wife. It shows a different side to domestic abuse.

A side where we have a dad who is wonderful to his kids, kind to his friends, generous and giving. Most of the time he’s even a great husband. And the victim (I’m not saying the name here for spoiler reasons, by the way, I haven’t forgotten) uses this to rationalise what is happening to her. We can see that what he’s doing is wrong. That all the good doesn’t balance out the abuse. But she can’t, and more important, we can understand why she’s thinking the way she’s thinking.

So it is funny, but it’s not a joke.

That’s why it works.

Unputdownable?

These days critics throw the term “unputdownable” at pretty much every book on the shelves. To the point that it is becoming farcical. I actually picked up a 600-page book the other week on which was the claim: “I challenge you not to read this in one sitting”.

Spurious doesn’t cover it.

I took that challenge. I won. Where’s my prize?

My edition of Big Little Lies does not have any comment calling it “unputdownable” on the front. Presumably, the marketing team thought the top half of the heads of Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and, um, the other one, would be enough to generate sales.

But, for me, it was one of those rare books I actually did not want to put down. I read it in three days and, if anyone asked me to write a quote for the book cover (which I accept is unlikely), I would write:

“You will not be able to put this book down until you look at your clock and realise it’s gone midnight and think ‘enough is enough, I’ve got work tomorrow’”.

Because that’s a genuine comment and still highlights the truth of Big Little Lies.

That it’s a top quality book.

‘Nuff said.

Next time

We’re sticking with comedy, but in a different field next.

I’m taking on Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman in a book almost as old as I am.

Good Omens.

See you then.

Man vs Bookshelf: Devil May Care

This entry is part 4 of 12 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.

Man vs Bookshelf: Horowitz Horror

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Last Thursday, when I began my Man vs Bookshelf challenge, I said I was going to start with Lisey’s Story by Stephen King.

This turned out to be a lie.

Not that I intended to be dishonest with you so early into the challenge.

I even had Lisey’s Story out ready to read.

Then I wrote my intro post and went through to my bedroom where I had left the book, ready to begin.

And I stopped.

There it was, back cover pressed against the bedside table and front stretching towards the sky. Almost touching the ceiling.

Okay, not that far, but it’s a big book, is my point. Some 667 pages (give or take) and I was afraid.

The point of this challenge is to do 210 books in 210 weeks, and I am not fool enough to think it will fall simply as that. Some books will take much less than their given week. Some (like The Stand or Game of Thrones) will take much longer.

Lisey’s Story, I knew, could well fall into the latter category. This is fine in principle, but not from the start.

I had visions of being down by week two, and how I might react. I hate losing and could see myself tearing down my bookshelf and setting fire to it. A much more dramatic end to the series but one less satisfying in the long run.

No, this series was going to be Sam Mendes, not Michael Bay.

So, leaving Lisey’s Story where it was, I returned to my bookshelf and looked for something I could read in a couple of days. Something which would earn me the time I needed to finish Lisey’s Story without falling behind.

In the end, I went for Horowitz Horror. By, surprise surprise, well known English author, Anthony Horowitz.

So, let’s talk about that, shall we?

Anthony and Me

Before I dive into my thoughts on the book, I’d like to talk about my relationship with the author. As an author that is, not as a person.

In short, it’s variable.

Like a lot of guys who grew up in the 90s, I’ve been reading Anthony Horowitz for a long time. His Alex Rider series began when I was 8 and ran through my teenage years. I read (but no longer own) the first six of those and always had mixed thoughts about them.

The plots were good. They were exciting. They always finished with a bang. But I considered them to sag a little in the middle. I’ve often found that in a Horowitz series, the descriptions can seem a bit slow and overwritten.

I remember one scene (and I no longer remember which Rider book it was from) when Alex spent a whole chapter walking around a boat doing not much.

I almost fell asleep.

Then there was the Gatekeeper series, which started in 2005. I loved the first of these (Raven’s Gate) but after that struggled with how slow they were. I think I got part way through four and quit.

But it’s not all bad. Recently I read The Switch, which was fast-paced, smart, and a great read all through.

And of course, we have the Diamond Brothers Series, the first of which came out before I was even born. These have been on my shelf for over a decade, and are still there now.

As they will become part of Man vs Bookshelf, I won’t talk too much about them. I will just say, they’re brilliant. Quick, clever, and funny, whether you’re twelve, twenty-five, or ninety. I’ll be reading and re-reading them my whole life I imagine.

Horowitz Horror

Given this breadth of enjoyment across Horowitz’s books, I went into Horowitz Horror (which I’ve not read before) unsure what to expect, but excited to find out.

In the end, I gave Horowitz Horror a 3/5 on Goodreads. It was an easy read. The pacing was good with nothing unnecessary thrown in.

The problem was there often wasn’t much substance. You can say it’s down to length but plots often felt rushed, and this isn’t the case in all short stories.

My other general problems with the series were that it wasn’t frightening, and was often predictable.

Maybe it’s not scary because it’s for younger readers, but I remember being 12. I would have wanted this book to scare me. As I wanted it to scare me as an adult.

As for predictability, each story ended with a reversal or twist. The problem was you could usually see these coming a mile off. Again, I’m an adult, but I’m not sure these would fool many 12 year-olds either.

But, I don’t want to put the series down. There were some decent tales in here and a couple of twists that did take me by surprise.

So, let’s get into it, starting with…

  1. Bath Night

We open with a story that is well written and paced. Two arguing parents buy an antique bath which turns out to be evil. Isobel (our hero) realises this and attempts to destroy the haunted object.

The story employs a well-worn horror cliche: an object haunted by a killer who once used said object when murdering his victims. How a killer has come to haunt an object they owned is rarely explained by horror writers. Horowitz is not an exception.

There is also the classic YA/Children’s fiction cliche on show here. The evil object only acts up in front of the child, never the parents.

In Bath Night, Isobel is bathing in blood but, when her mother enters the room, it’s back to water.

Dick move, bath. Dick move.

This doesn’t make sense from a plot point of view. The killer is a killer. He has no reason to torment only the child. However, you can understand why writers have so long been using this trick. It keeps the kid isolated, and helps build the suspense. If you can suspend your disbelief, it works well again here.

What doesn’t work so well is the lack of roadblocks the character faces. In fiction writing, they say you should put your character up a tree, throw rocks at them, then let them down. In Bath Time, and many of the stories in this collection, there aren’t enough rocks.

For Isobel, a couple of horrible incidents (including the above) are enough. She heads back to the shop where they purchased the bath and, lo and behold, the first shop assistant she speaks to gives her what she needs. No fight. No needing to check. No lies. He just tells her the bloody history of the bath and sends her on her way.

Of course, this is to keep the story short and helps to contextualise the climax that follows. A climax that, while exciting to an extent, offers little surprises or obstacles for Isobel.

All in all a good story but not much thinking necessary. Don’t expect this to change further down the line.

Out of the collection, this is our Bronze Medal story.

2. Killer Camera

Recently I read Goosebumps’ Say Cheese and Die (released six years before Horowitz Horror).

Killer Camera is in much the same vein as that and is as predictable.

From the moment our hero, Matthew, sees the camera, you know it’s going to be evil. It doesn’t take the seller of the camera saying the owner’s disappeared for you to know bad things will happen to the subject of any pictures.

Like the first story, this is fast-paced. The problem is we want to see the camera in action, and Horowitz goes to some lengths to avoid a human subject. To the point that it just doesn’t ring true.

When Matt first buys the camera and wants to test it out, he doesn’t pick a person at random to photograph; he picks a mirror (which promptly smashes).

When Matt then gives the camera to his dad as a present, the latter professes it is too dark to take a picture of younger son Jamie. This would be fine if not for the fact he then takes a picture of a tree in the garden and the family dog.

Is the tree filled with lanterns? Does the dog have a radioactive glow?

It isn’t explained why it is too dark to take a picture of Jamie but not a dog and tree, and it was a point I found jarring.

However, if you can suspend your disbelief (a common theme in this collection), then there is a lot to like here. Not least the well-executed race against time climax which sees Matt return home to find his parents and brother have gone out with the camera.

Desperate to save them, he races to find them, and the story ends with a nice twist which is clever, dark, and suitably surprising.

3. Light Moves

The first of two first-person stories. A lot here is the same as the first couple of stories. What’s different is that the object of focus does not appear to be inherently evil. In fact, it begins as downright useful.

This time our object is a computer, given to our hero (Henry) after it’s owner (a racing correspondent) has died at his desk.

Not being an axe murderer (Bath Night) or a satanist (Killer Camera) the possessed computer seems less interested in murder. Instead, the ghost of journalist Ethan starts spitting out the winner of one horse race a day.

Why does the columnist’s death give him precognitive powers?

Who knows, maybe the afterlife is timeless. It’s never explained, so we suspend our disbelief again.

In doing this, we have a story that rattles along. The tips work, but Henry is too young to bet. Because of this, he enlists the help of deranged older kid, Bill, to place the bets for him, splitting the winnings.

This, as Henry’s smart friend Leo warns him, is a terrible idea. It is clear from his first appearances that psycho Bill is not someone you want to do business with. But Henry, blinded by greed, is not apt to listen to the warning bells in his head, or to Leo.

Such disregard for the warning signs leads to a climax in which Bill comes to steal the computer. Not much happens here, and the disappointing thing is that our hero steps aside and lets it happen. All this to facilitate a twist we saw coming.

This story is not awful, but neither is it as good as the first two. It has a weak ending, and as in previous tales, some of the devices for moving the plot along are clunky.

How does Henry find out what the word ‘Casablanca’, the first to appear on his screen, means? He walks past two teachers, one telling the other he won money on the horse Casablanca.

Hmm, very likely.

4. The Night Bus

One of a couple of tales where the story is the twist and the twist very good.

Two boys trying to get home after a late night party jump on a night bus which is, alas, not the one from Harry Potter.

The story is nothing more than one of the boys – Nick – watching people get on and off the bus, each arrival further spelling out the twist we got from their first conversation with the conductor upon arriving at the bus.

As such, when this twist is finally ‘revealed’ by the mother, no one is very surprised or interested.

5. Harriet’s Horrible Dream

As above, we all know what’s coming here from very early on. This story has more substance but signals the first of three unbearable POV characters.

In a row.

Now, I’m all for an anti-hero, and characters we ‘love to hate’. Frank Underwood and Patrick Bateman immediately spring to mind.

This story, however, gives us Harriet. A spoilt snobby little girl who revels in getting her nannies fired and who is happy to leave her parents for a stranger the moment her father loses all their money.

The intention here, presumably, is to get us to hate Harriet for reasons that become clear at the end of the tale.

It works, but sitting in Harriet’s head for 18 pages is still an intolerable experience. Especially when we know where we are going the whole time and are not surprised when we reach the end.

6. Scared

The second of three stories with a thoroughly unlikeable main character.

This tale’s only saving grace is that we are stuck in Gary’s head for just 11 pages – making it the shortest of the book.

In those 11 pages, Horowitz treats us to a laundry list of terrible things our ‘hero’ has done. Ranging from being generally awful to his mother and grandmother, to opening a farm gate in the hope the cows will escape.

Just when you think it can’t get any worse, Gary admits to having stolen his favourite jacket from AN OXFAM SHOP.

Yeah, Horowitz really wanted us to hate this one.

The story itself is about Gary getting lost after going for a walk. You may not see the ending coming, but neither is it enjoyable. There is no climax, no excitement. Just an underwhelming end.

I would give this tale the esteemed Worst Story Award.

7. A Career in Computer Games

The final (thankfully) hateful character. Here we have an idiot thief whose crimes include (but are not limited to) stealing from his mother and throwing a brick at a cat for no reason.

What a champ.

The story involves our ‘hero’ – Kevin – signing up to test a new game.

It’s evident from the get-go something dodgy is going on, but Kevin isn’t bothered. He hears two grand a week, and signs on the dotted line.

The story from here is as you’d expect. His life becomes a game, and this gives Horowitz the chance to have some fun. He treats us to the most action-packed plot so far as Kevin tries to stay alive against numerous faceless killers on foot, bikes and in helicopters.

There’s not much more to it than that, but the ending involved an enjoyable twist. Yes, he’s in a game, as you expected, but perhaps not in the way you expected.

Not a great story in all, but the action and the last lines bring it well above the two that preceded it.

8. The Man with the Yellow Face

The second of two first-person stories. A boy waiting at a platform gets some pics at a Photo Booth. Upon printing the photos, he finds the third of four pictures is not of him at all, but of an ugly man with a yellow face.

This story proves that lack of pages does not mean a lack of suspense. Horowitz foreshadows the climax brilliantly here, and my heart pounded as I read towards it.

The twist I guessed, but only moments before the reveal, and it was still satisfying.

This story proves it is possible to be clever and build suspense, even over only a few pages. Although the twist is not quite as good as the one to follow, this is still my favourite story.

Our Gold Award Winner.

9. Monkey Ear

A take on the classic tale ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ (which is referenced here, albeit attributed to Edgar Allen Poe rather than W. W. Jacobs) but with a nice twist.

The story starts with a family on holiday and not enjoying it. Looking for a taxi rank, they step into a shop. Here the shopkeep’s nephew sells them a Monkey’s Ear, saying it will grant four wishes.

At home father, mother and son, place three wishes, although they don’t believe they will work.

In a way, the ear vindicates their disbelief. Something does happen after each wish, but it seemingly has nothing to do with the request made.

I confess this one got me. I could not for the life of me see how we were getting from wish to result. It was driving me mad.

In the end, and for the first time in this book, I needed the hero to spell it out to me. And, when the child Bart obliged, having worked it out himself after three wishes, I was impressed.

And there was still one wish to go!

Now, with the trick behind the Monkey’s Ear revealed, there is one more surprise in store as father and son fight over who should get the final wish.

Here Horowitz ends on a high point, with the best twist of the series coming right at the end. And this story, following our Gold Award, wins the Silver Medal.

Verdict

Nothing here will linger in the memory for long. But the series was an easy read and at least somewhat enjoyable throughout.

An excellent way to start the challenge (I started this on Thursday and finished Friday morning) I gave it a 3/5 on Goodreads.

Up Next

Okay, this time, I promise, it’s time for Lisey’s Story.

As a big Stephen King book, I imagine this could be a world away from what I’ve just read.

We’ll just have to wait and see.

Man vs Bookshelf: Introduction

This entry is part 1 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Over a three year period, my Uncle Colin gambled away everything he had. Home, pension, car. He even lost his wife after betting his daughter in a game of Texas Hold ‘Em.

He told me all this while sitting on my sofa; part of his plea to let him stay at mine for a while.

He said I would never understand what it was like to suffer an addiction.

But he was wrong.

I already have an addiction. I’ve just never admitted it before.

That changes today.

I’m addicted to buying books.

That’s right. Buying books. Not even reading them. I’m like an alcoholic who spends all his money on alcohol then just chucks the full bottles away. I’m surrounded by books I’ve never read. They’re piled high on my shelves. They litter my floor. They infest my dreams.

Until my uncle’s story, I’d never really considered this affliction. But his words had a powerful effect on me, and after I had sent him away to begin his life as a homeless person (no room to stay at mine, too many books), I decided it was time to face my addiction.

So here goes. A challenge to combat my problem.

I will not buy another book until I have read (or re-read) every single book in my flat.

It’s a daunting feat and will leave me a long time without engaging in my favourite hobby of buying books I’ll never read. But it’s necessary, and it gives me something to blog about, which is a bonus.

So it goes like this: 210 books, 210 weeks (that takes us to 2021 if you’re wondering).

Due to my eclectic tastes, the books are of all sorts from Stephen King to Darren Shan, from Anthony Horowitz to Douglas Adams, from Harlen Coben to David Walliams. I’ve got it all, and I’m going to read it all.

Some books I will love. Some will be meh. Some I will hate, but I’m going to get through them all. That’s the challenge.

And it begins today with a beefy book by Stephen King – Lisey’s Story.

Let’s get stuck in.