Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The Killing of Karen Silkwood

Ok, this is an investigation into the death, possible murder, of the trade union and nuclear safety activist Karen Silkwood. We all know the film, right? With Meryl Streep? Well, where that film gripped this just sends one to sleep.

Don't get me wrong the story is good. Here was a union activist, drawing attention to really appalling safety violations in a nuclear plant. She allegedly got hold of some dynamite files that would have blown the lid off the plant (excuse the pun when plutonium is concerned) only to die in a very mysterious car wreck on the way to deliver those documents which were never found.

So what's the problem? Unfortunately, the writer of this account appears to have done no research into the case themselves. Instead we're treated to a long winded account of the various civil actions taken on behalf of Silkwood's family against the company. If you've ever sat through a trial you'll know how mind numbingly boring they often are and Richard Raske does little to bring proceedings to life.

I'm sorry, I really wanted to like this book, I really did. But instead of being gripped my an apparent injustice, I found myself near sedated.

I give this two stars.

Into a Raging blaze

Thanks to NetGalley for review copy

This is a hard book to review. In some ways it's a three star read, while in others it's five star.

Firstly the negatives. The translation just isn't great and in places leads to the prose being stilted and halting. While I was given a review copy and some grammatical mistakes are to be expected,  I think that this was a more fundamental issue and was not just something a little more editing would fix. The story itself is also just too long. The author could have told his tale in two thirds the length and if he had done so it would have been a sharper and edgier tale.

Then there's an element I was simultaneously happy and unhappy with. The plot takes place within the byzantine world of the EU. Obviously some context is needed here and the author provides it in spades. As somebody generally interested in politics I was fine with this, in fact I feel I learnt something of the inner workings of the European Union, but I imagine many readers would find it a turn off.

Which finally leads me to the positives. Without giving away too many spoilers, the plot itself is strong and mirrors much of what later came out through the Edward Snowden saga about the NSA. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of the British intelligence services and felt that the general cynicism and amorality of the intelligence world was pitch perfect. As the author used to work in this field himself it was all too convincing.

I would definitely read more of this author's work but think that next time his publishers need to guide him a little more.

I give this three stars.

Monday, 15 September 2014

An American Outlaw

I picked this up having spoken to the author via Twitter. To be honest I was a little hesitant. I wasn't sure it was going to be my cup of tea at all. But in the end I was glad I did.

Basic storyline is ex-US marine and Iraq vet goes on a robbery spree to raise money for his team mates who came back traumatised and generally f***ed up by their wartime experiences. Throughout the book there's a recurring theme that society doesn't adequately look after it's veterans. This leads the reader to have a natural empathy with the protagonist. But the author also introduces us to a likeable antagonist, a US Marshall who's job it is to hunt this team of rogue US marines down. By the end I found myself kinda cheering for both of them, which gave the novel extra depth.

This could so easily have been a generic heist story, hence my hesitation. While the whole feel-sorry-for-the-vets thing could so easily have been laid on with a trowell. But the author's undoubted skill ensures that we avoid the world of cliché. The characters are well drawn and their motivations adequately explained. The tension is ramped up throughout the course of the narrative but it's not simply bang bang and lots of explosions.

On a technical level I noticed few spelling or grammatical mistakes, so rare in this age of ebooks where novels, particularly those self-published, are increasingly released without proper editing.

I have two minor quibbles which make this a four star review rather than a five star one. Firstly, one way the marines are tracked is via their use of their own service weapons. It's never adequately explained why they would use their own weapons, especially in the Southern states where guns are easy to come by. Why not just buy guns on the black market? Or use a false ID in a gun store? Secondly, the main protagonist is incredibly careful not to kill anyone. Despite being a combat veteran of the US marines, having fought through a bloody ambush in Iraq and come out traumatised, we're expected to believe that he would be unprepared to take life even when his back is to the wall? I understand why the author did this, he wanted us not to fall out of love with the character. But I felt it stretched credulity just a little far.

Having said that, all in all this was a very good book. The author is certainly someone to watch. I would definitely read more of his work.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Deep by Nick Cutter

This is outstandingly good, one of the best novels I have read in a long time. As the blurb at the back of the book says, it's kind of The Abyss (it's set on a deep ocean base at the bottom of the Marianas Trench in the Pacific Ocean with all the mystery and oppressive atmosphere that being at the bottom of the sea entails) with The Shining (they're cut off from society and people start to get cabin fever and go mental, or do they?). As one would expect from a book like this, there's a heavy mix of the supernatural, of demonic goings on, and as with The Shining you're never sure how much is in the characters' heads and how much is real.

While the plot is good, it's not outstandingly original. What raises this novel up from the usual is the writing. Quite simply the author's writing is superlative. He has a real ability to describe something deeply with a turn of phrase, to charge events with real emotion. Without giving too much away there's a scene where a child disappears and its quite simply haunting.

The author also has a way of keeping the narrative flowing. In many novels the character's back story is explained in clunky prose. Not in this novel. I found flashbacks and memories seamlessly integrated into the main narrative of the novel in a way that many novelists fail to do.

When I googled the author I wasn't surprised to find that he's also a literature novelist (it's an open secret on the net who he is and indeed he does little to hide his true identity). I would certainly read more of his work across genres.

Five Stars.

Monday, 8 September 2014

No Immunity

Plotwise, this book does all the right things. It ticks all the right boxes. It's basically about a young man in the diplomatic service investigating the murder of the UK's Ambassador to Argentina. The author himself worked for the diplomatic service and he clearly knows his stuff. This shows and makes the book convincing.

The problem is however that I found it all a little dull. I'm not sure why but I never really felt like reading it. If I hadn't received a review copy through Net Galley, I'm not sure that I would have persevered. I just never cared for any of the characters. I just never felt invested in knowing why the ambassador was killed.

Part of this might be my problem. Throughout the book I found myself actively disliking the clubby, old boys network that the author portrayed the foreign office to be. I found myself depressed that in this day and age our diplomatic service is still made up of these slightly obnoxious public school boys. Nothing seems to have changed since the 1950s.

I will award this two stars. Perhaps other people will like it. Perhaps it was my own prejudices which got in the way. Whatever the case, I doubt I will be in much nutty to read more from this author.

The Root of All Evil

There's a good book here...but this isn't it.

This is the first Roberto Costantin novel I have read and I really wasn't prepared for just how long it is. And boy is it long. That wouldn't be a problem if it kept your interest and contained a story which merited such length. I have read books as long as this and not noticed the length. Unfortunately with this I did and that ain't ever a good thing.

The Root of All Evil is a novel of two half's. The first half, the protagonist's back story of growing up Italian in pre-Gaddafi Libya is enjoyable enough. And really Constantin should have left it there. If he had written a literally novel about a boy's upbringing in Libya I might really have sang the books praises.

But then he writes another half. This time the protagonist has all grown up and is a jaded cop in Italy. There are three problems with the latter half. The first is that it comes  after an already weighty first half. The second is that it's also long winded. The third is that it just isn't very good.

Twists are thrown at you out of the blue. Characters fall under suspicion right out of nowhere, with no warning, no build up. The plot itself just doesn't make much sense.

All in all I can only say that I was thankful when it was over and won't be reading another novel from this writer.

I award it two stars and even that is just for the first half.


Firstly, let me say that this isn't the kind of book I would normally read. Sci Fi normally leaves me a little cold. But I was given a review copy through Net Galley and so read it.

I have to say that I'm glad I did.

I have seen some other reviews of this title that are lukewarm. Reviewers have said that some of the characters are underdeveloped and that the author goes a little over the top in his description of the technological advances in the world he envisages.

I have to say that I totally disagree with all that.

To me this book was pitch perfect. The characters were well drawn and attracted my sympathy. The plot was well thought through and held together perfectly. There were twists, as one would expect, but none were too obvious or laboured.

But best of all was the world the author envisages. Set in the near future, it is frighteningly realistic. The near total tracking software and CCTV coverage is already around the corner, as is law enforcement's use of drones. Add in a sinister cultish church and the "skinjobs" themselves and we are given a treat of a thriller.

I would definitely read more from this author and award the book 5 stars.

The Bremer Detail

The Bremer Detail - review copy received through Net Galley

This is a true account of Frank Gallagher - a former US marine, employee of Blackwater and head of Paul Bremer's security detail in Iraq.

Readers may recall that Bremer was in effect the American viceroy in charge of Iraq after the 2003 invasion. I'm sure everyone reading this will have heard of Blackwater, a company whose name became synonymous with scandal, so much so that it changed it's name twice (to XE and then later Academi).

I have to admit that I came to this book with certain prejudices. As someone whose politics are left of centre and as a UK citizen I don't have a particularly positive opinion of America's adventures in Iraq. Nor do I have a sympathetic view of Blackwater who I have always considered to be gung-ho mercenaries.

This book however made me completely re-evaluate my opinions of at least some of those working for Blackwater, which is testament to the humanity and skill with which the author tells his tale.

Frank Gallagher takes the reader through his time as head of Bremer's security detail from the early days of teething trouble to the end, when the operation ran like a well oiled machine.

Throughout he pulls no punches in his criticism of Blackwater HQ who continually attempted to cut costs and not provide necessary manpower. Nor does he hesitate in criticising other contractors for gung-ho unprofessionalism, including those working on other Blackwater contracts.

The most impressive thing he relates however, is how his team never lost anyone to enemy action, nor did they kill anyone. This when they were protecting the man who was possibly more at risk than any other in the world, including the President.

The book gives enough detail of the tactics and professionalism of his team to explain to the reader how this was achieved and one is left with deep respect for both his teammates and for Frank himself.

All in all this was a brilliant book and I would recommend it to anyone, whatever their views of the Iraq invasion.

I give it 5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Triple Agent: The Al-Qaeda Mole Who Infiltrated the CIA, by Toby Warrick

This isn't a novel, but it may as well be. As any aspiring writer will know, often fact is stranger than fiction, and often you really couldn't make this shit up!

The book follows the CIA's pursuit of Humam Khalil al-Balawi, a Jordanian man who they believed had been coerced by the Jordanian secret services into infiltrating al-Qaeda high command.

For months he had been sending back revelatory information and appeared to be able to locate the al-Qaeda no 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri.

A bunch of CIA people arranged to meet him in one of their forward operating bases. Only he wasn't an informant but a double agent. Wearing a suicide bomb vest, he blew himself up, killing a number of talented CIA case officers.

This book is very well written and very well researched. It gives an insight into the pressures those looking for high value targets in post 9/11 Afghanistan were under, and how pressure from above inevitably led to corners being cut in the field.

In short this is a really good read.

5 out of 5.

How The Dead Live, by Derek Raymond

This, the third novel in the Factory Series, and sees Raymond's nameless detective leave London for a remote village called Thornhill, where he's meant to be looking into the disappearance of a local doctor's wife.

Centred on an old country house, this tale has a haunting feel to it and one which the author ties to the 2nd World war and a generation betrayed. And then there is Raymond's prose which at times is almost poetic. 

At times however, Raymond gets a little too carried away with himself, his prose becomes a little too florid and he almost goes off on an unnecessary and ineffective philosophical tangent. However all in all this is a good read and I enjoyed it immensely.

4 out of 4

He Died with His Eyes Open, by Derek Raymond

OK, I read this back in 2006. Originally published in 1984, this is the first of the author's "Factory" series, featuring a nameless detective working for the Metropolitan Police's Department of Unexplained Deaths at the Factory police station (both the department and the station are fictional).

The plot is simple and yet effective and Raymond avoids the usual clichés that can come with a police procedural. Instead he opts for almost a psychological portrait of his nameless detective who slowly becomes obsessed with the victim and immerses himself in his life.

Like the best noir, almost all the characters are disagreeable and unpleasant human beings while Raymond's hero is as flawed an anti-hero as any.

This is a brilliant book and I would urge anyone who likes their fiction gritty to read this book.

5 out of 5