When I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally that...moreWhen I picked up this book from the shelf in the book shop I read on the cover the blurb, "The biggest challenger to Dan Brown's crown." Normally that would have been enough to make me put the book back on the shelf and look for something else, but I recalled that I had just read another book by Sam Bourne and it hadn't been nearly as bad as anything written by Dan Brown, so I thought I'd take a chance on it anyway. It was remaindered and going cheap so I wouldn't lose too much if it was a serious contender for Dan Brown's crown as a writer of trash.
But the cover blurb certainly influenced the way I read the book -- looking for comparisons with Dan Brown.
There are some superficial resemblances to The da Vinci code (the only Dan Brown novel I've read). The main characters are a man and a woman who meet and get hooked into travelling around ostensibly trying to solve a mystery together. Unlike Dan Brown's characters, they have more believable professions -- a doctor and a lawyer. And though it turns out that they are investigating a conspiracy, it is based on a real historical one, and not an imaginary bogus one.
Though the characters and many of the incidents in the story are fictitious, the historical setting is for the most part real. Like The da Vinci code, the story has several plot holes, but they are not as numerous and obtrusive as those in The da Vinci code. There are a couple of points at which the reader's credulity is strained, a sort of "this kind of thing just doesn't happen" moment, and then one thinks of former US President George Bush's "extraordinary rendition", and one realises that of course it does happen. As G.K. Chesterton once said, "Truth is always stranger than fiction, because fiction is a product of the human mind, and therefore congenial to it."
I won't say too much about the actual story, because of the danger of spoilers. A suspected terrorist is shot outside the UN headquarters in New York, but turns out to be an apparently harmless old man. Lawyer Tom Byrne, who formerly worked for the UN, is hired to offer hush money the victim's family so they don't make a fuss about it, but gets a crush on the victim's daughter, which complicates things. It seems that shadowy people are looking for something that they suspect her father of having had, possibly his World War II memoir of persecution of the Jews and resistance movements against Nazi occupation, which the old man had been involved in.
It's not outstanding, but it's quite a good read, and the tale is quite well told. In that respect, Dan Brown doesn't come anywhere near challenging it. (less)
I enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at t...moreI enjoyed reading Winter in Madrid by C.J. Sansom so my son gave me this one as a Christmas present. Winter in Madrid was a historical novel, set at the time of the Spanish Civil War, but this is an alternative history novel, set in 1952, in a past that never happened, where Britain lost the war against Germany in 1940, and was ruled by an authoritarian government allied to, and somewhat dominated by Nazi Germany, which was still fighting against the USSR in the east.
David Fitzgerald, a civil servant in the Dominion office, has been recruited to spy for the Resistance (led by Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee), but he keeps this secret from his wife Sarah, who, while not an admirer of the regime, is a pacifist, and so disapproves of the violence of the Resistance.
David has an old university friend, Frank Muncaster, who is being held in a lunatic asylum, and rumour has it that he may have a secret that would be of great interest to the Germans. David and another friend Geoff Drax are asked to visit Frank in the asylum to try to find out more. The tension in the story builds slowly but inexorably as the British Special Branch and their Gestapo allies begin to suspect what is happening, and become more and more interested in the information that Frank Muncaster is believed to have.
C.J. Sansom portrays well the kind of moral dilemmas faced by people who have to keep a secret life completely separate from their public lives, balancing the humdrum life of respectable civil servant with that of a spy.
In some ways the book reminded me of
by Arthur Keppel-Jones, which I read about 50 years ago. The difference is that When Smuts goes was written before Smuts went, and was looking forward to a dystopian future. Dominion is written with hindsight; it is easier to think what might have been if something had been different than to picture the future before it happens.
One of the things that makes the story so convincing is that what might have happened in Britain did, in many ways, actually happen in South Africa. The Special Branch is portrayed in a very true to life manner, as is the civil repression against dissidents. With the flood of reminiscences of Nelson Mandela prompted by his recent death, and right-wing people constantly trying to remind us that he was a violent terrorist, it is interesting to read in this book how Churchill and Attlee and the other Resistance leaders in Britain are portrayed in the same way by the right-wing rulers of the alternative Britain.
Things that actually happened in 1952 are included, such as the great London smog of the winter of that year, and some of the might-have-beens and might-not-have-beens. One of the might have beens is that one of the only makes of car mentioned in the book is a "big Volvo", used by David Fitzgerald and his associates in the course of their long flight from the police. The only other make mentioned is a Wolseley, used by the police (as they actually were, in London in 1952).
I found it a fascinating and absorbing book, and it seemed to reflect pretty authentically the nature of an authoritarian regime. (less)
When I began reading this book, I thought it was in the same genre as 1984 and Brave New World. It is set in a dystopian future, roughly in the area o...moreWhen I began reading this book, I thought it was in the same genre as 1984 and Brave New World. It is set in a dystopian future, roughly in the area of the present USA, which in the book is called Panem, and is divided into twelve districts, each dedicated to one kind of economic activity. There had been thirteen districts, but one had been wiped out in a rebellion against the Capitol, a new capital city somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. To keep the districts in line each has to pay tribute in the form of a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18, who have to fight to the death in an arena, with the last survivor being the victor, and entitled to live a life of luxury from then on.
The "tributes" are chosen by lot, but Katniss Everdeen, aged 16, volunteers to take her younger sister's place. She sets off for the Capitol with the local baker's son, who has occasionally been kind to her in the past, realising that they might have to kill each other.
Once they get into the arena, another genre crops up, William Golding's Lord of the Flies, which the scene in the arena resembles. I read other three books I have mentioned in my late teens, at the age at which I would have been eligible to have been chosen for the games had I been a subject of the fictional state of Panem. I've read all three of those books several times since, so it's a genre that I find appealing, and have for a long time.
Though Brave New World and 1984 are set in the future (at least, in the case of 1984, at the time when it was written) they satirise present trends in society by extrapolating them into the future. In the case of Brave New World the main trend is mass production, and hedonistic pleasure seeking. In the case of 1984 it is the surveillance society, and in both there is the bombardment of citizens by propaganda to enforce conformity to a totalitarian society. In the case of Brave New World this is done primarily by distracting people by the pursuit of pleasure and recreation. In the case of 1984 it is done by fear and threat. And in The Hunger Games it is done by both.
The present trend that is extrapolated into the future in The Hunger Games is "reality" TV shows. One of the first of these, Big Brother, deliberately recalled 1984. In The Hunger Games it is this that places it in the same genre.
I bought The Hunger Games because people I knew had read it and blogged about it, and their comments made it sound interesting. And as I read The Hunger Games I thought it was as good as, if not better than the others I have mentioned. I had noticed that it was the first of a trilogy, and when I was about half-way through I was thinking that it was a seriously good book, and had just about made up my mind to buy the otrher books in the series. I was preparing to give it four or five stars on Good Reads.
But in the end I gave it only three stars, because about two-thirds of the way into the story the author seemed to have fumbled the ball and lost the plot. The climax built up, the tension mounted, and then suddenly the whole thing just collapsed. Or so it seemed to me.
I won't say which point I think that was, for the sake of those who haven't read the book, and some might disagree with me on that point anyway. But in my blog, where I'll also post this, I'll invite people to say something about it in the comments, which those who haven't read the book can avoid reading if they think it might spoil the book for them.
A bookseller takes his ten-year-old son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where he is allowed to choose one book. The book he c...moreA bookseller takes his ten-year-old son to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books in Barcelona in 1945, where he is allowed to choose one book. The book he chooses is The shadow of the wind by an almost unknown novelist, Julian Carax.
The boy reads the book and enjoys it, and tries to find other books by the same author, but they are impossible to find, and he soon discovers that others are interested in his book, and he is made several lucrative offers, one from a person named after one of the characters in the book. He refuses them all.
As he grows up, he becomes more interested in solving the mystery of the book, and what happened to its author, and it soon becomes apparent that such a quest is dangerous, and that there are powerful people and forces intent on stopping him.
To say more would be a spoiler, and it is otherwise difficult to describe this book: a literary detective story, a tale of star-crossed lovers, a fantasy novel, an adventure-thriller. It's a cross between Romeo and Juliet, The Eyre affair and the film Pan's labyrinth, and more besides. At times, with the description of encounters with the police of the Franco era in Spain, it felt familiar, like the old apartheid South Africa, with echoes of A dry white season.
Edward Hammond is a surgeon who once, for a large fee, performed a liver transplant on Dragan Gazi, a gangster who was later on trial for war crimes i...moreEdward Hammond is a surgeon who once, for a large fee, performed a liver transplant on Dragan Gazi, a gangster who was later on trial for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. He is about to go on holiday when Gazi's daughter approaches him an blackmails him into searching for the accountant who controls Gazi's fortune. If he does not fulfil the request, she says, Gazi will reveal that part of his payment was the morder of Hammond's estranged wife Kate, who was indeed murdered by unknown assailants shortly after Hammond's return from Belgrade, where he had performed the surgery.
It does not appear to have occurred to Hammond that he could have gone to the police straightaway, and told them that he had new information relating to his wife's murder. But of course if he had, there would have been no story, or a very different one.
As with most of Goddard's novels, actions of mysteries of the past come back to haunt characters in the present, and this one is as good as most of Goddard's novels, where nothing is as it seems, and the shiftina alliances and loyalties of the characters keep one guessing to the end.
I've read quite a number of vampire novels, but found none to compare with Bram Stoker's Dracula. I've read Dracula several times, but all the others...moreI've read quite a number of vampire novels, but found none to compare with Bram Stoker's Dracula. I've read Dracula several times, but all the others were disappointing.
I suppose I might have enjoyed 'Salem's lot by Stephen King if I had not aleady read Dracula several times; it might then have come to me as something fresh and exciting. As it was, it seemed entirely predictable.
I read Interview with the vampire by Anne Rice because someone had told me about it, and forced myself to stick it out to the end, boring as it was, just to be able to say I had actually read it, and did not dismiss it as not worth reading just from prejudice.
The historian is the first vampire book I have read that seems to be a fitting sequel to Dracula. Not only is it a fitting sequel, I think it surpasses the original.
Perhaps I should digress from the books for a moment to describe an interesting event that took place at the University of South Africa nearly 20 years ago. Some people came and delivered a lecture on Dracula. They were from the Transylvanian Society of Dracula in Romania, and for them Dracula, as in Bram Stoker's novel, was a new and exciting discovery. With the fall of the Communist Party regime a few years before, Romania had a sudden influx of tourists and journalists looking for Dracula's castle. At first Romanians had no idea what they were talking about, because Dracula had only been published in Romanian in 1990. The Ministry of Tourism set up a group to research this, and they decided that it was a tourist gold mine, and so they renovated an old castle and renamed it "Dracula's Castle", and turned it into a kind of vampire Disneyland to cash in on the tourist trade.
Their historical investigations did not turn up an original for Stoker's Count Dracula (Stoker's story was rather set in Styria, in Austria), but they did turn up a rather bloodthirsty ruler, a Prince of Wallachia (one of the three provinces of Romania, the others being Transylvania and Modldavia) whose epithet was Vlad the Impaler, and who appeared to enjoy impaling invading enemies and his own subjects on stakes. His enemies included the invading Ottoman Turks, and the neighbouring Kingdom of Hungary, and he seemed to be the the historical figure who came closest to being a model for Bram Stoker's arch-villain.
Elizabeth Kostova builds on this, and unambiguously links Dracula the vampire to the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, with three generations of historians investigating the legends by doing research in various libraries. To say more about the plot might be a spoiler, but I can say something about the way the plot is constructed.
After a hundred or so pages I became curious about the author and her background, because, in spite of the book being set in at least three different historical periods (the 1930s, the 1950s and the 1970s) in several different countries, I spotted no glaring anachronisms. In addition, there were references to several different periods of medieval history, and again, the settings seemed authentic.
The Wikipedia article on Elizabeth Kostova notes that a very high price was paid for it
Publishers Weekly explained the high price as a bidding war between firms believing that they might have the next Da Vinci Code within their grasp. One vice-president and associate publisher said "Given the success of The Da Vinci Code, everybody around town knows how popular the combination of thriller and history can be and what a phenomenon it can become.
That was very interesting, because one outstanding feature of The da Vinci code was its bad history and worse plot, made worse still by Dan Brown's spurious claims that the historical background was accurate. It is a claim that Elizabeth Kostova could justifiably have made, but, with more modesty than Dan Brown, didn't.
I spotted just one, very minor, anachronism -- a character referred to his having grown up in Cumbria twenty years before Cumbria became an official county name -- before that a person would be more likely to have said "Cumberland", or "Westmorland", or possibly "The Lake District". There may be others, of course, but if there were they weren't so glaringly obvious as to be distracting, like the errors in The da Vinci code. The descriptions of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 seem to be pretty accurate, and are also informative.
Descriptions of life in Orthodox monasteries are also fairly accurate, as are those of of some folk-religion customs, such as fire-walking.
Bram Stoker manages to avoid this difficulty when writing about contemporary England, though his knowledge of the geography and folk-religion of the Balkans was derived entirely from books, and was sketchy, to say the least. But his story holds up in spite of that, and in spite of the plot flaws it remains a good read. Kostova manages to get in all three -- a combination of history cum thriller cum horror story that comes off well. She uses some of Stoker's techniques -- telling the story through letters written by the characters, and also uses some of the conventions that Stoker established for vampire folklore -- that vampires are afraid of crosses and garlic, for example. One of the things I do have some doubts about though, is that Kostova seems to invest Turkish worry-beads with a religious signficance analogous to Western rosaries, and therefore good for scaring of vampires. Greeks also use worry beads, but they seem to be purely secular, and quite different from the Orthodox prayer ropes that are closer to Western rosaries.
As an Orthodox Christian, this was one of the things that I found a bit unsatisfactory -- the main characters in the story were agnostic, yet the seemed to put great reliance on religious symbols like crosses for warding off vampires. This strikes me as being purely superstitious.
On the other hand, it probably does reflect the attitudes of many nominal Orthodox in Balkan countries, especially those that were deliberately secularised after several decates of atheistic communist rule.
But those are minor quibbles, and don't detract from enjoyment of the book, which is a very good read indeed.
A psychotherapist, Karen Wiley, receives anonymous notes written by a psychopath, or a child threatened by a psychopath. This kind of plot has almost b...moreA psychotherapist, Karen Wiley, receives anonymous notes written by a psychopath, or a child threatened by a psychopath. This kind of plot has almost become a genre of its own, with some authers, such as Jonathan Kellerman, seeming to specialise in it. Reading the blurb and the opening chapters of this reminded me of The Analyist by John Katzenbach, which has a very similar theme. At least in this book the protagonist does not behave quite so stupidly as the one in Katzenbach's book. Both books, however, have a motif of the hidden dangers of the Internet.
It's difficult to write about such a book without including spoilers, so perhaps it's easier to write about the genre. One of the things that strikes me about the genre is that it is assumed that there is nothing remarkable about apparently normal people living apparently normal lives to have regular appointments with psychotherapists or psychoanalysts of some kind. If these books are an accurate reflection of American society, it would seem that psychotherapy has become a kind of religion, at least among the upper middle class. In America, in such circles, it seems that people would talk about "my shrink" without the slightest twinge of embarrassment, whereas in South Africa regular visits to such a functionary would be regarded as a shameful secret.
Of course in the book the normality of life is interrupted by the actions of a psychopath, but the solution isn't to be found in psychotherapy, at least not of the paid client/therapist kind. The solution requires police work, and in the story there is plenty of that, as police professionals, semi-professionals and anateurs get involved in trying to track down the psychopath, getting in each other's way and working at cross-purposes as the body count and gruesomeness rises.
But given the existence of such a genre, this book is one of the better examples. (less)
What Robert Goddard does best - a mystery in the past with repercussions in the present. In this case, the mystery of what happened to the Russian roy...moreWhat Robert Goddard does best - a mystery in the past with repercussions in the present. In this case, the mystery of what happened to the Russian royal family, and their link with Anna Anderson.(less)
This is the third book I have read by Jo Nesbø, where the protagonist is Oslo detective Harry Hole. The book opens with Harry on indefinite leave, hid...moreThis is the third book I have read by Jo Nesbø, where the protagonist is Oslo detective Harry Hole. The book opens with Harry on indefinite leave, hiding out in the opium dens of Hong Kong, and being brought back to solve a serial murder case -- two women have been found dead, drowned in their own blood.
I haven't read the book immediately preceding this one in the series, The snowman, which apparently explains why Harry was in Hong Kong, and perhaps one needs to read that to understand what happens in this novel, but I found it rather disappointing. The first book I read about Harry Hole, The redeemer I thought pretty good, the best of the flood of Scandinavian whodunits I'd read to date. So what was wrong with this one?
I suspect that Jo Nesbø has been influenced by the success of Stieg Larsson, and has been trying to imitate Larsson's style, and it doesn't quite come off. In most whodunits, the reader is exposed to clues as the detectives are, and has to work out the most likely suspects based on the same information, and that is part of the fun of reading whodunits. In this book, however, the reader has more knowledge than the detectives, and thus can work out the primary suspect long before they do. I won't go into the possible reasons for this, as that would probably be a spoiler.
In addition, Nesbø comes perilously close to jumping the shark by giving Harry Hole not one, but three near-death experiences. The book ends as it begins, with Harry Hole retiring to obscurity. I don't think that's a spoiler, but I do think that this time it's probably best if he stays there. (less)
This object appears to be a book of some sort. A fat book. With letters printed in groups that seem to be words of some sort. English words. Words in...moreThis object appears to be a book of some sort. A fat book. With letters printed in groups that seem to be words of some sort. English words. Words in groups that appear to be sentences of some sort. Verbless sentences. Mostly.
There is a banal theme that seems to be a plot of some sort. A bad plot. A recycled plot. A plot about an idol of some sort. An evil idol. An idol that bad men want to use to destroy the world. There are several groups of bad men of some sort. They all want the idol. They all get the idol. They all die. The good guy gets the idol.
Then the bad guys get it. They die. Then the good guy gets it Then the bad guys get it. The good guy gets the girl in the end. There is a happy ending of some sort. For the survivors.
And it is undoubtedly the worst book I have ever read. It sets a new standard in badness. (less)
This is the third book in Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, the others being The girl with the dragon tattoo and The girl who played with fire. While th...moreThis is the third book in Larsson's "Millennium" trilogy, the others being The girl with the dragon tattoo and The girl who played with fire. While there is something of a gap between the first book and the second, this one carried on right from where the second one leaves off, so if you've read the second book, don't wait too long before reading this one, because it is in effect one long book in two volumes. Leaving it too long might mean that you forget some important elements of the plot.
I also think that this one is by far the best of the three.
I won't describe it, because saying too much would probably be a spoiler for the second book if you haven't read it. I didn't learn much from it, and its nothing profound, just a good story, well told. It differs from the preceding one in that there's more police action, and a bit of courtroom drama thrown in. (less)
I seem to have been reading quite a lot of these recently. This on is the second of the "Millennium" trilogy, the fi...moreYet another Scandiwegian whodunit!
I seem to have been reading quite a lot of these recently. This on is the second of the "Millennium" trilogy, the first being The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The plots include the staff of Millennium magazine, based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Unlike most of the Swedish whodunits I've read, in this one the protagonist is not a boozy middleaged divorced or divorcing police detective with health problems and in trouble with his superiors, but is Lisbeth Salander, a young female computer hacker with antisocial attitudes.
A Mary Sue (sometimes just Sue), in literary criticism and particularly in fanfiction, is a fictional character with overly idealized and hackneyed mannerisms, lacking noteworthy flaws, and primarily functioning as wish-fulfillment fantasies for their authors or readers.
Jarret linked to a site, The Universal Mary-Sue Litmus Test, and I had a look at it and started doing the test for my own fictional characters. They seemed very remote from being Mary Sues, and hardly any of the criteria applied to them even slightly. Perhaps that's because I've always believed what G.K. Chesterton said about fairy tales -- fairy tales are not about extraordinary people, but about extraordinary thing happening to ordinary people.
But the further I went into the test, the more it seemed to apply to Lisbeth Salander. Could she be a Mary Sue?
I have to admit that for the first 100 pages or so I was tempted to abandon the book, mainly because my wife had just finished one that I wanted to read more. But I stuck with it, and the pace picked up, especially after page 200 or so (there are 569 pages) and in the end I would say that it was a good read, though I still have mo reservations and some of the other characters.
Perhaps some of the flaws in the book can be attributed to the fact that all three books in the trilogy are being published posthumously, and so are in a semi-raw state. A good fiction editor might have pointed out some of the flaws in the characters, for the author to revise. But with the author being dead, no one really can revise them any more. (less)