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: I Am Legend

This entry is part 11 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Important milestone here.

I Am Legend was book number 10 in my quest for domination over my bookshelf.

That’s ten down, 200 to go.

Pretty neat, huh?

I’ve been enjoying myself so far.

It’s been tough, at times. When I don’t feel like reading or when I don’t have the time or when I’m knackered and just want to go to sleep.

But it’s great, persevering. It’s forced me to read books I would never have read otherwise.

Books that would have sat on my shelf unloved and uncared for until the end of days.

Like Wheezy in Toy Story… uh, 2? 3? In one of the Toy Story’s, anyway.

This challenge is equal opportunity. Everyone gets love.

Like a Disney film.

So this week’s princess and prince coupling are…

Richard Matherson and Me

I’ve little experience with Richard Matherson.

For example, no idea if he would like me referring to him as a princess.

Let’s assume yes.

I’d never read anything by him before I Am Legend.

I’m not even sure I’d heard of him until the 2007 Will Smith starring film adaptation of I Am Legend landed.

I enjoyed the film, and it was because of it I bought the book from HMV (Future readers might want to Wikipedia that one).

But (recurring theme) I never actually read it.

Until now.

I Am Legend

Read from: 20/11/2017 to: 21/11/2017

I’m fascinated with the origins of stories. Always have been. From conception to development to writing.

Anything that happens before it hits screens/ bookshops.

Whenever I enjoy a book or a film I seek out such information. Hoping to learn from the creative process, or to at least see some interesting facts.

It’s one of the reasons I love Darren Shan. His author notes are so detailed and offer real insight into his creative process.

Upon seeing I Am Legend, I was keen to find out about the book it was based on.

I could have read it, but it was easier (and more interesting) looking online.

So, I knew the film didn’t match the book in many ways, and that lots of what made the book so great was missing.

I also discovered the book had influenced such greats as Stephen King and Night of the Living Dead. Which meant it had indirectly influenced Night of the Living Dummy.

That was pretty exciting to find out.

Going into this book, then, I had preconceptions, without having any idea if I was going to like it or not.

But what is it about? What did I think of it? And why has it taken me so long to get to the meat of the review?

The Plot

I Am Legend is the story of a man alone in the world. Alone, that is, if you don’t count the vampire-like creatures that now cover the globe.

By day he goes on supply runs, builds up his fortress-like home, and slays sleeping vampires.

By night he hides in his home as the vampires – led by his old neighbour Ben – surround his home, screaming for him to come out. Unable to enter themselves because of his fortifications, which include cloves of garlic. For real.

Over time, our hero becomes dissatisfied with his life, which is understandable. He begins teaching himself ‘science’, trying to learn what happened to humanity. Doing this helps him become a more effective killer of the undead and the not quite dead.

Troubled by loneliness, alcoholism, and depression, our hero (Robert) spends as much time living in the past as the present. Until, finally, he meets another human.

Only even this is not the good news it could be, and this unexpected meeting leads towards the climax of the book.

A final confrontation with the creatures of the night.

General Thoughts

I Am Legend was a good book.

I’m not usually a fan of books written a long time ago, but this was good enough.

Fast paced, easy read, not a lot going on that’s offensive.

I suppose that’s the main thing to note. The best way to describe this book is in ways it wasn’t bad, rather than ways it was good.

In the end, I’d describe it as middle of the road, and so gave it a three out of five on Goodreads.

Did it deserve its legendary status? Eh, probably not but then I’ve never been too fussed about unicorns either so what do I know?

Depth

This book is a snip at 161 pages which was good for this challenge, and bad for the story.

Not a lot happens, and Robert is pretty plain.

He spends most his time killing sleeping vampires, moaning, or getting drunk.

And yes, two of those are my favourite things to do, too, but I’m not the protagonist of a book. That I know of.

The plot is light. The only exciting sequence pre-climax is one where he leaves his garage door open and gets home late.

This bit is enjoyable, but it also feels silly.

Robert is a man who has survived alone for months and months. This doesn’t happen by accident. Yet, one day he gets up, goes out, leaves his garage door open, and then falls asleep outside.

When he wakes, rather than going home, he does more vampire hunting.

It turns out his watch has broken but still, it’s crazy reckless and doesn’t speak of someone who would have survived so long.

For the rest of the novel he is sensible, and maybe that’s why it’s a bit dull. He does exactly what a survivor would do in an apocalypse situation, and where’s the fun in that?

His only other lapse in rational thought also prompts the climax of the book which goes to show. No one wants a protagonist who knows what he is doing.

Different types of Vampires

Ugh, this was confusing.

In I Am Legend, Vampirism is brought about by a bacterial virus (more on that later).

This is fine, in itself, but it does cause confusion when there are two types of vampires. Vampires that have died and risen again (proper vampires) and vampires that are the alive.

That’s right; they’re just infected, or something. Cheat vampires, you might call them.

Maybe I missed something, but there doesn’t seem to be a distinction between them. At least not until the very end.

Certainly, they are both hurt by the same things and seem to have the same abilities. For a long time, they even seem to chum along together pretty well. Again, until the very end.

Given the virus that turns people into vampires tends to kill, I’m not sure why living vampires ever happen.

I’m confused. Someone, please explain.

The Explain

Speaking of explaining…

A lot of tales get in trouble for trying to explain away fantasy with science.

Here’s the problem. Fantasy doesn’t exist. We don’t have zombies or vampires in real life because they can’t happen because science says so. (so there)

So, when stories take a monster and try and make it seem plausible with science, it often falls flat.

Worse, the explanation takes away from the strength of the story and weakens the effect of the plot.

Recent example: an episode of the latest series of Doctor Who. A house is eating people, and a girl is made of word. It’s proper weird and quite creepy.

Finally, the Doctor gets to meet the wooden girl and the creepy landlord and…

They sit down to talk about what has happened.

I get that this is what Doctor Who is about in many ways, but the explanation took from the plot, rather than adding.

All we wanted was for Doctor Who to get an axe, chop up the girl, set her on fire, then explode the house.

But I digress.

Reading other reviews of I Am Legend I know this problem annoyed a lot of people.

Robert spends a lot of the novel experimenting on the vampires. Finding out where the virus came from, then explaining it to us via internal monologue or his girl mate.

In the interest of fairness, I actually thought the explanation worked well. Or as well as any explanation could in such instances.

But in a book so short already, I felt Matherson could have devoted these pages to more interesting plot. More movement.

Most of it made sense, at least, but not all.

The only explain away that fell flat for me was the story of why Robert thought he was immune. Spoiler alert: it involves a vampire bat.

This was silly and unnecessary. It’s a virus. As readers, we accept there will be some immune people. That’s how it works.

We didn’t need some half-baked explanation to try and handle it.

That, unfortunately, was a detraction from the story as a whole.

Sum up

I’ll sum up now because otherwise, people will complain the sub-heading is misleading.

I Am Legend is legendary because of what it gave the horror genre. An interesting take on vampires. One of the first man living in a post-apocalyptic monster-filled world stories. An early blend of sci-fi, fantasy and horror.

The influence of the novel is unquestionable, that’s what makes it one of the most important books. Definitely in 1954, if not the last 100 years.

However, reviewing it in 2017 the story feels light, and a little underdeveloped. Where it has been developed is in sciency explanations that only half work and not in characterisations or story progression.

Although Robert does meet a dog at one point, the real story does not start motoring until the last fifteen percent.

So it’s good, and it was an enjoyable read, but a 3/5 is as good as I could have ranked it.

Some might say that is even too generous.

Next Time

From vampires to a group many think of as real monsters…

I’m delving into Non-fiction story Confessions of A Sociopath next.

Look out for that.

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: Clough: The Autobiography

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

Today, with book seven, we have something new.

The first non-fiction book of Man vs Bookshelf.

Exciting, no?

As well as being the first non-fiction book, Clough has also pinched an undesirable record.

Lowest pages read per day (so far) at 45. Beating previous loser, Good Omens (69), by some distance, and being well below our front-runner. Big Little Lies, with 155.

This low pages per day record also mean it took the longest to read at seven days. Although this was still within the week I allow myself, thank God.

So does a low pages per day count show an unenjoyable book?

Let’s see…

Brian Clough and Me

04/12/1982 Division One – Notts County v Nottingham Forest
Brian Clough
Credit: Offside / Mark Leech

Having been born in August of 1992 my first football season on this world was Clough’s last in management.

I can’t say I took much notice.

By the time Clough died, some 12 years later, I was still not all too interested in football.

Clough only came to my attention some years later when, at uni, I finally got into football in a big way.

I learned of Clough through my Grandma, a lifelong Nottingham Forest fan, first. Then, later, as a result of the book, The Damned UTD, and film of a similar name, both of which I loved.

As of 2017, I have a much greater understanding of the Forest and Derby legend. I’m a long time player of Football Manager and, as a result, managers have always interested me.

I’ve read plenty about Clough and watched interviews from back when he was still alive and in the game.

Despite this, I’ve read neither of the Clough autobiographies on my bookshelf.

I’m not sure why. I’ve always wanted to read them, but must never have got around to it.

Now, though, seemed like the perfect time to crack one open. Not only because of the challenge but because they belong to my Grandma. I’m visiting her this week and thought I should return at least one.

So, as a fan of Clough and his confrontational style, what did I think of his first autobiography?

Brian Clough: The Autobiography

I wasn’t sure, and still am not sure, how I was going to review a non-fiction book.

I’m used to talking about plot and character, but that won’t work here. I can hardly blame Clough for weak characters and crappy plotting. He is, after all, restricted, seeing as his life is his life. It’s not his fault he didn’t have a final showdown with big bad Don Revie before he retired. Although, that would have been good.

But I suppose I can talk about general enjoyment and writing style. So that’s what I’m going to do. As usual, making most of it up as I go along.

So prepare for that.

Enjoyment

As stated above, this book took me longer to read than any other on the challenge so far, but there are a couple of reasons for that. Neither of which suggest, in their own right, that this book was any worse than others I have read.

In fact, to set my stall early on, I preferred this book to both Good Omens and Devil May Care, despite giving each a 3/5.

On a ten point scale, I would have given this a seven and Good Omens and Devil May Care sixes. These are VERY different scores, as we all know. But you’ll have to take that up with Goodreads and their stupid scale.

So, reason one: I had a day off.

Since starting this challenge I’ve had one day off, a Tuesday, the day after I had started reading this book.

I went to the cinema and was knackered when I got home and didn’t feel like reading.

(Well, I didn’t feel like it, and it was late. I didn’t want my girlfriend to be mad at me like she will be when she reads this sentence.)

Taking this into account, I read Clough on six non-consecutive days. This would bring the average pages per day up by seven. Still the lowest, but closer to Good Omens.

Second, this is a non-fiction book.

This means it is not plotted to be a page-turner. At least, not in the same way. There are no cliffhangers at the end of chapters to drag you along. The story is the story, and so there is not that same tug as with a fiction book to page turn.

Brian’s life was his life, and while it was interesting, he will never be able to compete with the lives of Batman and co. Because of his unfortunate drawback of not being fictional.

This, though, I don’t think we can hold against him.

The above contributed to a lower average page count, but the book was enjoyable. I love reading about football managers, and Clough was one of the most interesting.

Although, having an exciting life will not, alone, make for an interesting book.

Writing Style

Writing style is as important in an autobiography, as it is in fiction. More so, even, on account of it not having cliffhangers etc. to keep you going.

Anyone can ruin an interesting life by writing about it dully.

Brian Clough avoids this.

Part of this may be down to the fact he had John Sadler writing either with him or, more likely, for him.

Although, the choice of Sadler – who worked for the Sun – as writer does make you question the validity of the book. After all, the News is supposed to be factual, and the Sun has never worried about that.

Regardless of who wrote it, the writing style is very Clough. Plain speaking, accented, friendly and littered with exclamation marks. The latter of which being a horrible writing device, but anyway.

The writing works. It improves the flow and gives the book a Clough personality. Even if there are a lot of digressions as he tells his stories.

This, plus an interesting life, makes for an enjoyable read. But it was never going to be as good as the best fiction.

A 3/5 was always the highest it was ever going to go.

Predictions

There are a couple more things I could write about, outside of general enjoyment. One of them, which I won’t go into in too much detail, is honesty.

I could talk about how Clough claims never to take a bung, despite many official sorts being sure he did. He could be lying, he could be telling the truth, I don’t know, and speculation won’t get us anywhere, so let’s leave it.

One thing I will discuss is his predictions. Written in 1994, and read 20 plus years later, it is clear Clough would never have made a good precog. Fortune telling, then, would never have been for him.

Though I suspect most fortune tellers know what they are saying is nonsense. However they portray it.

Much like writers of the Sun.

Back to Clough.

There are three bold predictions Clough makes in this book that I knew right away were not right.

First – and he mentions this twice – Clough claims he does not believe any side will beat his Forest team’s record of going 42 games unbeaten.

In fact, Arsenal smashed this record in the 03-04 seasons, right before Wenger forgot how to put successful teams together. Or, at the very least, before everyone else learned how to do it better.

Second, he claims of his son, Nigel Clough, that “I don’t think he will choose football management, though. I’m certain he won’t.” Stating the reason ex-footballers become managers is because they are not equipped for other work.

Well, if that’s the case, Bri, your son was less equipped for the outside world than you thought. He went into management in 1998, only a few years after this books publication. He has been doing it now, at the time of writing, for 19 years. Albeit, not as successfully as his father.

The final prediction made is a sad one, and does not fall into the same category as the first two. It involves addiction, something only he can overcome, rather than anyone else.

Being in released in 1994, there were already rumours of Brian Clough and alcoholism, and he moves to address them in the epilogue.

He talks about how his family worries about his alcohol intake and admits it is something he will need to look at it. The penultimate paragraph reads:

“Whatever steps are necessary to set my family and friends at ease, I will take them. No-one is going to be able to brand Brian Clough as a drinker who lost control and could not conquer his habit. I will beat it…”

This is a prediction tinged with sadness. Here was one of the most successful football managers of all time. A man never afraid to step up to a challenge. A man who knocked down obstacles throughout his career and who was determined to do so again with alcoholism.

If anything shows the strength and resolve it must take to overcome addiction it is this. Clough would go on to battle addiction for almost a decade after the release of this book. A fight culminating with a liver transplant in January 2003 that saved his life.

What was written at the time as a message of strength to end the book, now adds a dimension of sadness, given the context.

But, whatever happened towards the end of Clough’s life, he will always be remembered as one of the greatest football managers of all time.

Not to mention one of the greatest personalities.

Next Time

Following on from the most depressing end to one of my reviews yet, I will be moving into the world of Private Detectives. And you know what that means…

That’s right, silly names and, ironically enough, alcoholism.

This time I’m reading The Cuckoo’s Calling, the first in the series of Cormoran Strike books (no really, that’s his name).

The book is written by Robert Galbraith, pseudonym of little known British author J.K. Rowling.

She wrote some children books about wizards and a snake man, or something.

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: Lisey’s Story

This entry is part 3 of 12 in the series Man vs Bookshelf

So here it is. Book two of 210 in my Man vs Bookshelf challenge: Lisey’s Story.

As you’ll know from the introduction and last entry, I had intended Lisey’s Story to be my first read.

Then I wussed out.

I was afraid I wouldn’t finish Lisey in a week (no pun) and would be behind as soon as I started. A nightmare scenario.

To combat this fear I turned to Horowitz Horror, a short read I knew I could blast through in a couple of days. As I did.

That done, it was time to turn to Lisey’s Story, a 647-page beast.

As it turned out, it took me only six days to read anyway, but that’s beside the point.

Point is, what did I think?

I’ll get to that but, first off, let’s discuss my relationship with the book’s legendary writer. Stephen King.

Stephen and Me

As a teenage reader there was one name I always knew was missing from my bookshelf: Stephen King.

I loved horror. But at some point, it becomes criminal to say such a thing and not be able to follow it up with your favourite King. (Henry Tudor, FYI, is not an answer anyone is looking for.)

And I did try to get into him. I remember that. I picked up my first King at the local library – The Dark Half – and was sure I was on my way. There was one problem.

I didn’t finish it.

Not even close.

The truth was as a younger reader I wasn’t ready for the heavy, expansive writing style. The books that focused more on character development and less on a plot that rattled along, as I’d been used to.

So even when someone gave me Lisey’s Story and Duma Key, I couldn’t get through them. I made it halfway through the latter and didn’t even bother with the former.

But, of course, our reading tastes develop over the years. Towards my later teens, I read ‘Carrie’, ‘Salem’s Lot’ and ‘The Shining’ and enjoyed at least the first and last of those. Then I started on the Stand and stopped once again. (Let me off, it’s bloody long)

Since then I have read ‘The Long Walk’ and the first four Dark Towers novels and enjoyed them all. But it was only this year (2017) that I got into a King in a big way, and startled rattling through them.

Since January I’ve read ‘The Stand’, ‘It’, ‘Christine’, ‘Bag of Bones’ and ‘From a Buick 8’ and have enjoyed them all.

I had finally caught the bug, and so, when I started this challenge, a King novel was always going to come early on.

And with book two, it was here.

Lisey’s Story

Enter Lisey and her story.

Confession first. I’ve had Lisey’s Story a long time. If not a decade then creeping fast towards it.

But, like so many of the books on my shelves, I’ve never actually read it.

Why?

Well, I didn’t think it looked any good. Not from the blurb and, in all honesty, not from the first 200 plus pages.

But I persevered – because of this challenge, more than anything – and boy, was I rewarded.

If Goodreads used a ten point scale (which they should), I would have given Lisey’s Story a 9. It’s in my top three King books with ‘It’ and the fourth Dark Tower book, ‘Wizard and Glass’. Although this may change throughout the challenge.

In the end, I gave it a 4/5.

Not too shabby for a book I didn’t think I’d like.

The Story

In essence, Lisey’s Story is the tale of Lisey Landon coming to terms with the death of her husband, Scott, who is (as is customary in a King book) a famous author.

That’s pretty much it, and the great thing is, while you might think 647 pages is too many to deliver on a simple concept. It isn’t.

One of my biggest criticisms of King in the past has been that his books often contain (or are stuffed with) ‘extras’. Subplots that don’t relate to the main plot. Character backstories for cameos. The kind of stuff you could skip without it detracting from the novel as a whole.

Not so with Lisey’s Story. Here we have a story where every page is essential. Every line adds to the story. And, in the end, every strand of every subplot is pulled together, so you can see that it was all necessary.

I didn’t see that at the beginning. It leads you into believing the story will be about the professor who has hired a madman to claim Scott’s unpublished papers.

I fell for that and was frustrated. King introduces these unpublished papers and the man who wants them almost from page one. But it’s not until around page 100 that Lisey receives a threatening phone call from the madman. Then not until page 219 that she finds a dead cat in her mailbox and a letter from the maniac.

By page 318, when the madman finally shows up at Lisey’s place, however, it’s starting to make sense.

Because, while the time spent with Lisey’s catatonic sister and her memories of her relationship with Scott had seemed pointless at first, we were now starting to see. It was all starting to come together, and as it did, the story began to take off.

Scott, having foreseen his death, was looking out for his wife, and from the midway point it begins to come together, and you realise all of it was relevant. The memories she is unfolding allow her to save her sister, as she had once saved her husband. Saving her sister gives her the help she needs to defeat the madman – who we now realise is a deranged fan of Scott who wants to hurt her more than he wants to help the professor with his little problem. And in the end, all that comes together to help Lisey achieve what mattered most all along.

Getting over Scott.

This is what makes brilliant storytelling. The way all those storylines converge in a way you never saw coming. This is what makes the last 300 pages of the book so gripping. King drags you along in his wake and makes those last 300 pages seem like 50. You can’t believe the way you’ve shot through them.

That kind of trick is hard to pull off – I know, I’ve tried – and you can see what a master storyteller King is in the way he handles it so brilliantly.

Memory

Having read ‘It’ not so long ago, I know how King can use the power of memory to build suspense.

In Lisey’s Story, he uses it again, and to even greater effect.

Here, we have three storylines unfolding at once where memory is concerned. There is Lisey in the present, with Scott leading her from beyond the grave to start facing her repressed memories.

There are those memories, which detail some of the darker moments in Lisey’s relationship with Scott.

And finally, there is Scott’s childhood, told by him to the Lisey in the past.

What we end up with is like Inception for memory. At one point Lisey is remembering a time when she sat with Scott who was in a catatonic state. Within this memory, Lisey is remembering a story Scott told her from his childhood and, as he tells her this, we, the reader, are taken further, to experience it first hand.

Confused?

Yeah, I’m not surprised. But within the narrative, King switches deftly between the different levels of memory. He takes us between present Lisey and two past Lisey’s as well as Scott telling a story and Scott in the past. But we never get lost. King, with all his writing mastery, makes sure of that.

Done so well, it makes for the perfect device for carrying the narrative forward. Right to the end of the novel.

And speaking of endings…

Endings

I read recently that King doesn’t like endings, and having read ‘It’ and ‘From a Buick 8’ I can see that.

But here, what we have works perfectly.

In Scott’s past, his story comes to a close with his father’s murder and his departure from the only home he’s ever known. In Lisey’s past, Scott dies with her at his side.

These events are not surprises. Scott is two years dead at the start of the book, so we knew he was gone. And Scott had told Lisey some 300 pages ago about the death of his father.

Yet, when we get to read about these events first hand its perfect. Both stories are heartbreaking for Lisey and for us. The last piece of the memories that have been unravelling throughout.

Finally, in the present, we experience the last memory of Lisey and Scott together. While the final story from his childhood is new to her. The final piece of the puzzle, it turns out, to help her move on. Not just from Scott, but from his other world and the malevolent force there that has marked her.

This, along with her finally clearing out his study (the study she started off trying to clear but being unable to), is the perfect way to end the novel.

Scott and Lisey’s Story.

Fantasy

One more thing.

I’ve written this review and (aside from one allusion right at the end) have not mentioned any fantasy.

But, of course, this is a King book, so it is present (otherwise it would be a Bachman book). There is another world (Scott calls it Boo’ya Moon), and there is a big monster (Scott’s Long Boy). That’s not to mention the dark curse of Scott’s family which manifests itself as a monstrous possession (referred to in story as “the bad gunky”.

All these things do feature and are key parts of the plot, but they aren’t the point. They exist only to move the plot forward, and the plot, as I said, is about Lisey and Scott.

So read this story. Give it a real go. But understand that. This isn’t ‘It’ or ‘Salem’s Lot’. There is no focus on destroying some big evil.

It as, at it’s core, about a woman, getting over the death of her husband.

And that feels just as it should be.

Next time

By the time this blog lands I guess I will almost have finished my next book. And it is:

Devil May Care by Sebastian Faulks (Writing as Ian Flemming)

See you then.