After the Novel

Fun activities BEFORE THE NOVEL is published

A Tale of Two Cities

Book review: Past Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton

Book review: Canary by Duane Swierczynski

Philadelphia is the fifth largest city in the US of A, while Seattle is possibly the fifth most attractive. I’ll leave the second ranking up to the reader to decide.

In the two books under review, the cities are as much characters as the people, with both the urban areas lending obstructions and help in various ways to the inhabitants.

Past Crimes Glen Erik HamiltonPast Crimes by Glen Erik Hamilton is the lesser of the two books, with too many of the characters not much more than a cliche – powerful grandfather, rugged henchmen, foolish minnows, etcetera. If the author had put as much time into developing the characters as he had into the often warm and loving descriptions of Philadelphia and its environs, the book would have soared. As it stands, it’s a rather obvious read of how the ‘hero’ will use his awesome talents to outwit the baddies, the weather, the ocean, asphyxia … you get the picture.

Canary Duane SwierczynskiCanary by Duane Swierczynski achieves so much more, even with a YA hero. Sidebar: are we allowed to say heroine any more? Or do heroines have to be called heros, just like actresses have to be called actors. Or so some would have us believe. And can a book that depends extensively on long passages from the YA’s journal really work?

Swierczynski pulls off every technique to perfection, giving us believable characters, believable plot and action, and very believable outcomes. Sure, there would be other stories very similar to Sarie’s which could end badly – and there a few in the book. But then there also stories where the Davids outwit the Goliaths, even if they occur one in a thousand. Canary is a one -in-a-thousand delight – about both the city and the YA heroine – so rush out and grab a slice of Swierczynski soon.

Top 10 Things Wrong with Girl in the Spider’s Web

Book review: The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz

Yes, you are reading correctly. These are just the top 10 things wrong; I could go on for some time, otherwise, and that may not be fair to any brains hoping for a simple afternoon of catching up with the latest “international blockbuster”. Or whatever they’re saying this week.

girl in the spiders web book reviewSo let’s begin …

1. Personality Problems 

Blomkvist went into the kitchen to get some peace and quiet. He was exhausted and wanted to go home.

This is laughable. Blomkvist had just had sex with his lover, a married woman and therefore extra frisson, he had just heard from the most dangerously exciting woman in his life after many months of silence, he had just been shot at, and he was the first to discover a hugely important dead man alongside a highly traumatised autistic boy. Blomkvist would be wired on adrenaline, testosterone and a dozen other synaptic exciters. He would not be a tired wimp!

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The Trouble with So Much British Fiction


Book review: One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Book review: When Will There Be Good News by Kate Atkinson

One-Good-Turn-coverOnce upon a time you could rely on a majority of British fiction to supply thought-provoking and powerful novels, and the power could rest with the characters and/or the plotting and/or the wit. Ian Rankin, Ian McEwan and Val McDermid all spring to mind, so I thought Kate Atkinson – a neighbour of sorts – might provide similar enjoyment.

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Misogyny Masquerading as Literature

Book review: The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino

Devotion-of-Suspect-X-coverWell it was going fairly well, albeit rather tedious with the triangle of the ‘super intelligent men’ all trying to outdo and outsmart and out manoeuvre each other. And, once again, a whole lot of the author telling us who thought what and when and why.

That’s how the initial two-thirds of The Devotion of Suspect X reveals itself. Ho hum.

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A storyteller who’s not afraid of characters!

Book review: The Nature of the Beast by Frances Fyfield

Nature-of-the-Beast-coverAfter the rather plot-driven novels of late, heavy on intricate details and wooden characters, how refreshing to come upon an author who lets the characters shine. Frances Fyfield provides a wonderful cast in The Nature of the Beast, each one from minor to major as distinct and intriguing as the next.

The absence of drunk-or-otherwise male detective/cop in the central role lets the interactions between everyone else have almost equal value, and our sympathies are free to roam hither and yon as the stories unfold. For there are many stories here, each rich and detailed and, again, no matter whether minor or major.

It’s a mystery, and maybe a crime thriller, but it’s above all a smooth and crafted tale from a storyteller with a touch that most authors should envy.

Just another moderate-drinking male cop story

Book review: The Inspector and Silence by Hakan Nesser

hakan-nesser-the-inspector-and-silence-cover-200pxSo after my poor experience with Nesbo, I looked around for something with a bit of guts and novelty and, even, full-blown storytelling. So when I saw, “favourably compared with Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson”, how could I go wrong.

The Inspector and Silence is an Inspector Van Veerteren Mystery and VV spends a lot of time musing about cases, both current and past. And about women, both current and past. And a lot about when and how to have a cigarette, and/or a glass of wine, or a couple of beers, or which dish to choose on a menu, or whether to walk or row or drive, and which music could or should accompany any of the preceding activities.

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Just another drunk male cop story

Book review: The Bat by Jo Nesbo

jo-nesbo-the-bat-cover-200pxI’ve tried but Jo Nesbo is not for me. In fact The Bat is just about the worst ‘drunk male cop with issues’ story I think I’ve read.

Most drunk male cop stories have a girl/woman being abused/raped/tortured/murdered and then another one or two or five suffering similar fates. Meanwhile the drunk male cop goes on a bender or five. Sometime later the author adds a twist so the drunk male cop can find/arrest/kill the bad guy(s). And there’s been nothing in the preceding pages to suggest the drunk male cop has such abilities.

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Cultured Insolence of Supériorité

How refreshing to be in a culture that is not afraid of tall poppies, that is as relaxed around excess as it is around elegance. 

The Paris models (surely; in fact there must have been a hundred of them on holiday here, and just in the quarter of my hotel; models, at least, if not real-life celebs, judging by the clothes, jewellery, perfume and hair) at ease at the nearby, cheap roadside kiosk.

The scruffy (deliberate holes in jeans and t-shirt, perhaps; but the dreads were real) workers in the posh hotels, dispensing smiles and scowls in equal measure, retain street cred alongside impeccable manners when the mood takes them.

Yes, I’m back in a French ‘territory’ and had been partially prepared by the airline with its subtle touches like free drinks, free alcohol and free 3-star menu: “Will that be white or red with your meal, Monsieur?”

The touches include the most comfortable ‘economy’ seats on the planet, the high quality audio/visual options, the charger for iPhones and iPads (Marketing Director to Finance Director: “But of course ALL our passengers will need to charge their Apples.”)

Leap in the shuttle bus, glance occasionally at the countryside, but then we’re past the hustle of town/city and at the beautiful white sand beach with the modern three-hotel complex waiting to receive us.

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The Crime is in the Writing, not the Story

Book review: P is for Peril by Sue Grafton

p-is-for-peril-by-sue-graftonThis is Grafton’s ongoing saga about private investigator Kinsey Millhone. It is terrible in many ways. Let’s itemise a few.

Spoilers? Not really, because there is no coherent plot.

One: the central mystery about a missing, highly respected doctor has no connection points. It’s all tell and no show. Having most characters say how marvellous he is/was achieves not much. So we don’t really care how that central story unfolds.

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The Loss of Storytelling!

Book review: Loss by Tony Black

Book review: The Last 10 Seconds by Simon Kernick

LOSS-Tony-BlackThese two novels are not really novels at all. They are, at best, second-rate submissions for TV scripts for stack-em-high-and-sell-em-cheap filler drama.

Neither book has a storyteller at the helm. Black and Kernick are writers, able to string a few sentences and paragraphs together in a fairly organised way.

Can they tell a tale? No. Can they grab the reader with characters and plot that are anything other than cardboard and copycat? No.

Can they fit in the product placement? Oh yes. Black should receive excellent ‘royalties’ from Marlboro (mentioned every 10 pages or so), Royal Superkings (occasional mentions), Next, Stone Island and Crombie clothing, Palmolive hair products, Saab, Nissan and Fiat car companies, Doc Martens (mentioned every 50 pages or so) etc. You can imagine how clumsy, awkward and stuttering the story reads with so many brand names on every other page. Did I also mention the beer, whisky and soft drink brands?

Continue reading “The Loss of Storytelling!”

The Harlan Coben problem

one-false-move-287pxWriters, yes. Storytellers, not so much!

It’s taken a while but I think I now know what’s troubling me with so many “Award-Winner” and “International Best-Seller” books, especially of the crime-thriller variety.

Having been an avid reader for years, the recent dissatisfaction with certain books could have been put down to over-familiarity with the genre. But now I think that’s not it. The real reason has to do with intent.

The craft of writing

There are many aspects to writing, among them style and engagement. You may like a writer’s style and, in some cases, not care too much about how close a book stays to a genre. You may get hooked into a story and go with it, style be damned.

But ONE FALSE MOVE (a Myron Bolitar novel), re-read recently on holiday, suddenly made my issues clear.

The book is not a story. The characters are cyphers but in a bad way. In a “Frasier” bit-part kind of way. It’s like Coben wants to be a TV scriptwriter rather than an author. The clever quips (at least one per 5 pages) soon become tedious as they fail to tell us about either the character OR the story. All they tell us about is the writer.

Is the writing good?

In Coben’s case, yes. The writing’s good IF it’s for a TV episode full of clever but ultimately throw-away quips (did I mention “Frasier”). There is plenty of “style” to the writing, in the same way that a rap star over-emphasises certain traits for effect, like MC Hammer’s trousers. But the trousers do not make a great song.

Myron and Win are a 12-year-old boy’s super-heroes – super-smart, super-strong, super-prepared, super-successful-with-girls. Are they believable? Not one iota. Can they stand if we suspend disbelief? No. That’s because, like “Frasier” or “Friends”, the characters are too OTT. Nobody is quite as innocently dumb all the time like Joey, and nobody is as airtight competent as Win.
The Joeys and Wins are fine on TV because they are here-today-gone-the-next-minute. You’re not having to read 80,000 words that depend on the character.

Is the storytelling good?

In Coben’s case, no. Let’s be clear. I don’t care for the style, at least not in the way Coben strains to make it work over the whole book. But I could excuse that if the story held real interest, or had a stunning finale. But hauling all those words and quips along, just to get to the old chestnut of the super-rich man and the super-attractive maid – surprise! – er, no.

I guess I shouda known – the “vicious young mafioso on the make” blurb – that Christian Science Monitor recommendation on the cover – by the award-winning author (but for an older book, not this one) – and the weird recommendation by the Houston Chronicle (“a heavy hitter like Robert B. Parker”).

And there is the difference. You could say Parker’s CEREMONY and Coben’s ONE FALSE MOVE are similar. Like Ferraris and Toyotas are similar – they’re both cars, right? Parker is gritty, unconstrained, open-ended and a chronicler of life. Coben is smooth, up-tight, middle-class-closed and a chronicler of TV-style and feather-weight non-life.

Youth, Revisted. Yoof, Remixed.

Megan-Abbott-credit-Drew-Reilly-340x2501Megan Abbott has voice. She has a sharp, reckless, barbed and poetic voice, all at once, often on every page.

The voice – more accurately, the voices – are of Abbott’s protagonists and bystanders. Abbott teases, illuminates and weaves, perfectly, those inner thoughts and often half-spoken conversations that capture teen and pre-teen minds.

end-of-everyTwo of Abbott’s books – THE END OF EVERYTHING and DARE ME – tell stories, yes. But these are not “Field of Dreams” macho stories. These are not stories of men finding redemption, new purpose, forgiveness – all wrapped in a soft, honeyed end-piece.

It’s always been a jungle out there, no matter whether a right of passage is in a forest or a desert, no matter if the backdrop is an asphalt jungle or a school gym, nor if the date is 1812 or 2012. The battles still rage – armies of soldiers or neighbourhoods of cheerleaders – the result is the same.

But Abbott flips the lid open on girls, tweens, teenagers and young women in a breathless gallup, her first-person prose always believable, drawing pictures of characters both intelligent and incomplete.

daremeThe mysteries in the books – for both are who-dunnits – are gripping and yet Abbott paces the action and inaction with a deft hand. When the pace drops, we’re interested in seeing the young minds of the protagonists in their struggles to piece experiences together, even those well beyond their maturity level.

Enid Blyton wrote adventures, often with fantasy leanings, with happy endings. Megan Abbott writes thrillers. Hard-boiled, noir thrillers. Don’t let the gloss deceive you!

Out On A Limb

Looks like this is my month to be out of step. For example, “no serious reader of hard-boiled fiction should ever miss a moment of Dave Robicheaux in action” and etcetera.

Yep, this is about: “James Lee Burke … one of the best writers of crime fiction in America. His prose is an uncommon mixture of taut realism and poetic eloquence.”

Well, no. His prose is an all too common mixture of “tell don’t show” from a writer who’s got the awards/status/recognition to be able to churn out second-rate books without editors saying whoa!

There are even occasions in Pegasus Descending where Burke explains that anyone in law enforcement will say …

It seems Burke has asked for the “inside” on uniform wisdom and swallowed the hype, believing it is “expert” opinion. He just loads the book with whole slabs of this hokey wisdom.

Meanwhile, internal consistency is woeful. All through the book we’re told Lefty is cruel to women, obsessed with being cruel to women, and loves to beat them with his fists.

So at the end of this book-so-tedious-by-half-way, we have Lefty stripped down and torturing someone. Except, he’s torturing the guy friend of the woman he really hates, while the woman is sitting bound on the sidelines. This is rubbish. If  there was consistency in the book, and if Lefty wanted information from the woman – or the guy – he’d be torturing the woman and making the guy look on.

This is not “hard-boiled” fiction at all. It’s just hard to read.

A Correct Review

Mainspring by Jay LakeIt would seem Jay Lake has created a wonderful alternate universe. No, not in his book Mainspring but in our ordinary world.

Lake has been praised by many notable sf and fantasy scholars – Locus, SFReviews, Hal Duncan and Paul Di Filippo to name a few.

Lake has been compared to Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Philip Jose Farmer and China Mieville. Even, some say, to Gene Wolfe.

This is all wonderful fantasy and would not matter, except. Except that Mainspring is a very minor work. The central conceits are, perhaps, grand, but the writing is overblown. The writing is scriptural and, often, thinly disguised.

Lake writes from the perspective of a young puppy who has just been introduced to a new ‘playground’ and so bounces around, enthusiastically and energetically. Like his central character Hethor, Lake sniffs in the corners and gallops across the expanses. It is delightful to watch on occasion, but not for a whole book.

By two-thirds of the way through Mainspring this reader was tired. The dei ex machina had worn my interest waaaay down, sorely. I no long cared if the puppy – sorry, Hethor – was saved by another opportunistic (and implausible) plot device. I no longer cared about the sniffing around the corners of the internal philosophy of the book.

There are a couple of elements to the book that could make a worthy short story or two. But then the seriousness of the situation grabbed me. Tor Books decided to publish another book in the same vein, Escapement, also by Lake.

Where are the editors to harness this rogue alternate universe? Who will save this ‘correct’ person from the Lake-Tor steamroller? Where is there anything like the depth of Our Lady of Darkness by Leiber or the scope of Riverworld by Farmer to save me? Please ….

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