Thursday, 29 October 2015

The Writer's Guide to Weapons by Ben Sobieck

This is an amazing book. A brilliant book. BUY THIS BOOK!

Really, I could leave this review just there; those three sentences sum up all you need to know. But that wouldn’t really be a review now, would it? The Writer’s Guide to Weapons does what it says on the tin. You know all those action films where people do improbable things with guns? You don’t need to be a master gunsmith to know that firearm’s occasionally need reloading, or that cars don’t just blow up as soon as they’re zinged by a stray bullet. But wait, do you know the difference between a bullet, a shell, it’s casing? Why do character’s pump their shotguns in that badass way to scare the baddies/goodies? Should they even be doing that?

Then there are the practicalities. When writing a scene, just how should your character handle a firearm? Do they pull the hammer back? Rack the slide? Should they tilt their gun on its side like some gangbanger? And what gun or knife should I give to my hero or villain?

If you’re a writer and have ever grappled with these or a myriad other problems, or if you’re just a reader who’s darn well interested to know what is real and what is b*******, then never fear, for Ben Sobieck is here! Along with a few friends he’s brought along for the ride, notably Maynard Soloman and Bill Robber (more on them in a sec.) Ben, an editor on various US firearms magazines, has penned a manual for those who know nothing about knives and gun, a bolts and all account that takes the reader from the basics and on through the mechanics of guns and knives. Along the way he slays myths – no don’t pump the shotgun in that badass way, you’re just ejecting a perfectly good shell – and helps you choose the best weapon for the characters of your story.

You might fear that this is some dry technical manual, but no. Everything is explained in no nonsense and plain English. And just so you get it, hapless P.I. Maynard Soloman and his arch-nemesis Bill Robber are on hand to show you how NOT to do it. These sections are often hilariously funny and go to show just how wrong many writers of fiction can get it. Afterwards Ben reiterates just Soloman & Robber got it so wrong and just what they should have done instead, so there’s no real excuse for us writers to ever write it wrong again (Hollywood action movie script writers, take note).

But that’s just the book, there’s also an associated website which Ben updates regularly. And if all that isn’t enough there’s Ben himself. Like D.P. Lyle MD for writer’s forensics needs, Ben Sobieck is there for any writer’s queries about weapons. Example: in my novel I have a scene where the hero uses dead bodies from an earlier firefight as a physical barricade against a military SWAT team. So I emailed Ben and I asked him how long my character could survive when assailed by trained guys with military grade firearms. And Ben asks what type of body armour the corpses are wearing – military grade like the new attackers –goes away and crunches the numbers, consults colleagues. The he comes back and answers me and posts the whole thing on his blog. In other words he takes my crazy scenario seriously and the website continues to grow, a resource for all us writers. How cool is that?

So in conclusion you can see why I say this book is awesome; why I suggest writers and readers alike purchase a copy.      

Without hesitation I give The Writer’s Guide to Weapons an outstanding 5 out of 5 stars

Monday, 26 October 2015

The A26 by Pascal Garnier

This is the first book by Pascal Garnier that I have read, but it certainly won’t be the last. I’m relatively new to French crime fiction, the only other works I’ve read having been the excellent Bed of Nails by Antonin Varenne and the equally compelling Carnage by Maxime Chattam, the latter of which I review here:

What these three books share is a kind of quirkiness that I’m starting to associate with Francophone fiction, a surrealism that is quite unlike anything I’ve encountered elsewhere. In Pascal Garnier’s A26 this revolves around the lives of Yolande and her brother Bernard, a distinctly odd set of siblings who live together. Yolande is a hermit, she never ventures from the confines of their shabby and cluttered abode, who relies on her brother for her every need. Bernard on the other hand has just been diagnosed with a terminal disease (details are scarce, but I suspect it’s cancer), feels his life has been wasted, and starts to get some very dark urges as a result. The A26 of the title is a new motorway being built, a none-too-subtle manifestation of the modern world threatening to encroach on their lives.

This book tries to tackle a number of themes in its slim 112 pages, not least issues France has never really resolved from the Second World War. First and foremost it tackles the issue of those who collaborated with the Germans, those who persecuted them after the war and the hypocrisy of many who slung mud. Related issues the book raises are repentance, compassion and ostracism; the treatment of the mentally ill and those we deem outsiders; the onward march of progress. Some of these themes are deftly handled, particularly the residue of France’s shaming of those it deemed to have collaborated, the humiliations foisted upon young women who had relationships with German soldiers, a stigma which lasted long after the visible tarring and feathering. With other issues the author is clumsier, the building of the A26 motorway as a personification of progress I found a particularly clunky plot device.

That all said, this is a short and compelling read. It’s a great example of French crime fiction at it’s best, a region and tradition which I consider richer than the Scandi-Crime that routinely tops the UK’s bestseller lists. If you want to read something different than endlessly frozen landscapes, this book is as good a place to start.

I would give this book 4 out of 5 stars

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Carnage by Maxime Chattam

Carnage is a great little book; at a little over 100 pages it’s more a novella than a novel. But what it lacks in length it more than makes up for in punch. The story revolves around a series of school massacres, a subject that in the current climate is as raw and emotional as they come. Our protagonist is LT. Lamar Gallineo, a scruffy loner of a detective.

Our detective is called to the scene of the first massacre and with the culprit having killed himself as those who commit such massacres have a tendency to do, it seems to be an open and shut case. But then a few weeks later there’s a second massacre, and another, and Lamar soon comes to the conclusion that they’re connected. He proceeds to investigate and away we go.

Despite having only comparatively few pages to play with, the author brought Lamar Gallineo alive to me and I could easily spend more time with him, perhaps in a full-length novel next time. Unfortunately the other characters aren’t as well drawn but that’s forgivable in a short and snappy tale.  I had some issues with the police procedure, you don’t need to be an expert to know that detectives wouldn’t be walking around the scene of a massacre when the gunman was yet to be apprehended and his death hadn’t been confirmed. But once again I found myself forgiving this oversight. Similarly I felt that more could have been made of the plot. In fact I felt that the brevity of a novella was an odd length for this story, there being so much more that the writer could have done with it. That said the subject matter made this visceral and gripping and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 

I would award this book five stars

Secret Science by Ulf Schmidt

This isn’t an easy book to read. It’s a challenging read. The author, Ulf Schmidt, is an academic, professor of modern history and director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent, UK. He writes like an academic with a dry neutrality and a denseness of information. But it is also a difficult read because of its subject, namely the Porton Down scientists’ experimentation on unwitting subjects.

Much of the book focuses on the military personnel who were tricked or misled into exposure with chemical and nerve agents. They appear to have been given little information on the true nature of the substances they were to be exposed to and many suffered as a result. Most movingly is the case of airman Ronald Maddison who was poisoned with the nerve agent Sarin and subsequently died. Some of the test subjects rebelled and refused to go on with the experiments while elsewhere, others were compelled to continue, with a mixture of bravado and peer pressure used to keep them onside. Some of the injuries these men suffered were catastrophic.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Schmidt reveals that the scientists at Porton Down also had the wider public in their sights. A chemical of ‘largely unknown toxic potential’ was dispersed by plane over civilian populations in Wiltshire, Bedfordshire and Norfolk. Similarly ships, aircraft and moving lorries dispersed the carcinogen zinc cadmium sulphide. The London Underground was also targeted with Bacillus globigii, a bacterium now thought to be linked to food poisoning, eye infections and septicemia released on the Northern Line. While scientists of the time considered these substances to be safe and it is only now that their risks are understood, the fact is that nobody asked the public whether they minded being guinea pigs in tests and scores of people were potentially put at risk.

This is an important book and one that reveals a scandal at the heart of the UK’s defence establishment. I hope more people read this, as someone needs to hold the Government to account.

I would award this book five stars

The Man Who Watched Women by Michael Hjorf and Hans Rosenfeldt

At 528 pages this is a doorstopper of a novel and it needs to be. Just the sheer number of major characters requires such a length. There’s Sebastian Bergman, a drunken womanising forensic profiler; Edward Hinde, a brutal serial killer languishing in jail; Tokel Hoglund, the head of Riksmord, the national homicide squad. Under Hoglund there is Ursula Anderson, a married forensics expert he’s having an affair with; Vanja Lithner a cop who’s mother had an affair with Bergen, and who unbeknownst to her is actually her father, and Billy Rosen who feels he should have more responsibility. If all this sounds a bit soap opera, it’s because it is. Subplots proliferate; Bergen stalks Vanja when he finds out she’s his daughter, he drinks and sleeps around to drown out the guilt he feels after his wife and child died in a tsunami.

The main plot is no less hackneyed: A serial killer is committing murders that are reminiscent of those committed by Hinde, who of course is in prison? Is Hinde communicating with someone on the outside? Does he have an acolyte recreating his greatest hits? No prizes for guessing the answer. At points the main plot and the convoluted subplots intersect. Someone convinces Bergman to attend therapy. He meets a woman there and sleeps with her. Next days she becomes the serial killer’s next victim.

Despite its flaws it would be wrong to say that I didn’t enjoy this though. It’s written by two famous scriptwriters, Hjorf worked on the Wallander series while Rosenfeldt co-created The Bridge, and they pull off their tale with a healthy dose of panache. The story moves along at a brisk pace and the tension is strung out well. I also liked the fact that Stockholm is in the midst of a heat wave, a welcome reprieve from the freezing arctic conditions of much Scandi-crime. In conclusion I would say that this is an enjoyable read, though not exactly original.   
I would give this book 3 out of 5 stars