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The Red Wolf Conspiracy

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The Red Wolf Conspiracy was the most enjoyable fantasy novel I've read for a few years. Redick's comfort with the building blocks of novel construction bely the books debut status, and it has me tearing through the sequels at a rate of knots. Pazel is a refugee ship's boy with an unusual talent for acquiring languages. Through happenstance he finds himself on the last, greatest ship in the Empire - capable of carrying over a thousand people. But crushed amongst the sailors and tourists, there are agents for and against the powerful Arquali empire, and Pazel will find himself in grave danger before he's even left port.The Red Wolf Conspiracy is both original, but also unashamedly old-school in its construction. Old school in the sense that it lacks a gimmick, or thinly disguised metaphor underneath its swashbuckling yarn. Equally, it lacks a kind of "gritty" masculine braggadocio that other writers like Steven Erikson takes to adolescent extremes. Perhaps this explains its lack of critical "oomph" on publication - though I note every reviewer that has read the book seems to like it. What Red Wolf Conspiracy does have, though, is something much better. A fully fleshed-out world with a concrete sense of place and time. Wonderfully three-dimensional characters with believable, complex motivations, and the crucial fines herbes of a good fantasy novel (in my opinion): A strong narrative; a ripe sense of possibility and magic; and an undercurrent of romance or passion. The two main protagonists, though young, are mature and suitably complex. Their backgrounds shape their reactions and emotions, but they also grow and change over the books. The same can be said of all the characters, really - The boat could become a metaphor for a voyage of personal discovery; a journey into the unknown where the traveller is changed long before the destination is reach, if there is one. Indeed, under Redick's deceptively smooth prose, there's a philosphical bent to the book. It's not heavy-handed, and never overpowers a quite relentless narrative, but there's something allusive to it. Some reviews have mentioned the teenage protagonists as an attempt to gain cross-over appeal, but I vehemently disagree. This is a book centred around discovery - for its characters, its races, and its nations. What age is better suited to a voyage of self discovery than adolescence? In this respect, despite the powerhouse plot, The Red Wolf Conspiracy put me in mind of Paul Park's Roumania quartet, one of my best reads of 2012. This series is certainly shaping up in the same vein, most recommended.
The Rook: A Novel

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The Rook is an original novel and a very fun read with an interesting device. You can do a lot worse in contemporary fantasy. Myfanwy "wakes" up, surrounded by unconscious or dead people and no memory of how she got there. In her jacket pocket she finds a letter offering two choices: a pseudonym and a peaceful existence, or the much riskier choice of finding out what happened to "her". This is a novel, not a short story, so she picks the second option. What follows is a fun mystery as Myfanwy discovers her former job, and tries to sniff out who wiped her memory, and how. A lot of the fun is finding this out, so I won't spoil it too much. Suffice to say, you could file this book next to Buffy The Vampire Slayer or any others where a secret cabal of superbeings battle equally secret villains in a modern, unaware world. The most interesting part of The Rook is the author's device of leavening present-day passages with contextual journal entries, written by Myfanwy's past self to her future self. At first, these bothered me somewhat: the journal pops up with just the right info at just the right time. The reality is that Myfanwy would have read all of it in one go. But as the book went on, I found myself drawn to the prissy, introverted former Myfanwy, desperately struggling to anticipate when she would be neutralised, how, and what she would need to keep on. More broadly, O'Malley has constructed a fun and original world for these characters. The slightly cheeky, irreverent tone and galloping plot gives the books a very "television" kind of feel, but frankly it made the book fun. The plot isn't dynamite, but everything works well and the individual events are, again, interesting and comical. I'm looking forward to a sequel, and soon.
Mad Dog and Englishman: A Mad Dog & Englishman Mystery

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A slight, enjoyable mystery that takes itself exactly as seriously as it should, and doesn't outstay its welcome, Mad Dog and Englishman was a good read, especially given its current price on the Kindle (free).Sheriff English has a Deputy he can't fire, an ex-wife that won't quit, and half-brother whose senses are on a leave-of-absence. But these small-town tribulations pale into nothingness when the local priest's mutilated corpse shows up. Who killed him, and why?Hayes' writing is what really sets this book apart from other, more pedestrian mysteries, with similarly preposterous plots. He captures the rural setting with great accuracy and affection. Anyone from a small town will recognise the types and the way they react, but I was really impressed by how he refused to turn his characters into superheros when the plot demanded it. Instead, when a very unusual violence sweeps into town, the characters are at a loss, and make several bad decisions - exactly as ordinary people would do.But whatever the danger, the tone remains light, and the narrative bustles along. In this respect, Mad Dog and Englishman felt very "television" to me - lovable characters, light tone, dastardly deeds. This isn't a knock on the book, but anyone looking for adamantine logic and emotional (or otherwise) realism should best look elsewhere. They would be missing out though. Hayes has written an enjoyable romp, almost a perfect holiday read.
Roadside Picnic

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A classic with a new translation, forward and afterword, easily accessible after many years. Roadside Picnic may have difficulty living up to its reputation, however the book remains compelling, and it's not a demanding read. Aliens stopped over on Earth and left just as suddenly. They left "zones" behind, filled with odd technology humans are trying to puzzle out. Red is a "stalker", someone who illegally sneaks into the zone and smuggles tech out - if they don't die in the process. Roadside Picnic is not a big book, and - though a lot are retrofitted onto it - it's not a novel of big ideas and themes. Compared to other authors writing at the same time, it's more minor Philip K. Dick than Ursula K. LeGuin, but this is not to say it's a bad book. Much like Dick's work, un-knowing forms a large part of the book. Not only the alien tech, but what the other humans are feeling, thinking, why they act the way they do. Red's quest is a quest for meaning, really, and the book traces his - and humanity's - progress over more than a decade. Knowing its fraught publication history in the Soviet Union, it's tempting - and easy - to see cold war metaphors, totalitarian metaphors, capitalism/communism metaphors, and more on every page. And perhaps they were put there subliminally - though the remaining living Strugatsky denies it in the afterword. This gave me a somewhat weird feeling reading it - it's a rich text, but I was aware that I was projecting a lot onto it, and just try to appreciate it for what it is. The translation certainly felt unobtrusive to me - I cannot comment on its accuracy, but the prose was utilitarian and seemed surprisingly similar to other, Western scifi from the age to me. This review may sound a bit deflated. I suppose it is, in that the book has the reputation of a titan, and simply: it is not a titan. But what it actually is, is a fine enough book with a great setting that's rendered creatively, moves along quickly, and is not overlong. That was enough for me in the end.
Life and Death in Shanghai

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Life and Death in Shanghai is a very interesting memoir, capturing a critical time in China's history. Cheng's intimate participation in the Cultural Revolution comes with its own limitations, of course, but also gives a unique perspective. It's 1966, and the Cultural Revolution is intensifying across China. The wealthy widow of a Kuomintang official, former worker for Shell Oil in Shanghai and frequent overseas traveler, Nien Cheng stands out for all the wrong reasons, and it isn't long until the Red Guards are knocking at her door. What follows is an incredible story of deprivation and injustice - all the more incredible for being so common at the time. Cheng shares with us her incarceration, and much else, over the many years of Cultural Revolution.As a Westerner looking back some forty-odd years into the past, I can't help but marvel at the collective insanity of the Revolution. Cheng captures its meaningless banality, empty slogans and hopeless denunciations, but also how the Revolution, and communism in general warped the mindset of Chinese at the time. Her retrospective analysis, and the crude Sinology she is forced to engage in - a stumbling attempt to ascertain what is going on in the CCP at the time - mirrors what so many were doing. There's nothing especially clever about Life and Death in Shanghai - it's not that kind of book. Rather it is a no-holds-barred testament. A powerful, strident voice shouting out the truth. And yet, Cheng's decades of having to guard her thoughts is not so easily shaken it seems. Fiercely anti-Communist, there is nonetheless a feeling of careful construction to the memoir. She recalls so much, so perfectly, and her thoughts are always so... right. As a character she is faultless. But I was left with a feeling that part of Cheng's survival came at the expensive of a certain type of self-reflection or even self-knowledge. This manifests most obviously in her (seeming) complete unawareness of either her incipient danger, or - for a woman with tens of thousands of dollars in domestic and overseas bank accounts; three servants; a house to herself filled with precious art and ceramic - curious inability to see herself as the Party (rightly, in this one case) saw her: a bourgeois member of the elite. In some ways, this second layer - not Cheng as rebel, but Cheng as Chinese, and Cheng as representative of former elite - deepens the book considerably, adding a far more allusive and ambiguous set of questions the reader can ask. The answers, of course, are not supplied - at least not on the surface - but I wouldn't be surprised if the book ignites a hunger for more 20th Century Chinese history in anyone who reads it. Just this one voice is so compelling, and there are millions more.
Bitter Seeds

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Bitter Seeds is a frustating book. Its many strengths are offset by some fairly fundamental weaknesses and an infuriating finish which put a real dampener on my enthusiasm to read more of the series. The story can be summed up quickly: WWII with literal ubermenschen (for the Germans) and Lovecraftian horrors (for the British). It's a catchy hook, and Tregillis does a wonderfully spooky job in setting it up. The eldritch, cosmic horrors, and the broken, destructive children used by the Germans. The plot also rips along quite quickly - the novel encompasses the whole of WWII, so there's plenty of action. Sometimes, even a little too much as a few quieter moments or leavening could have gone a long way. Nonetheless, the setting succeeds, in large part because Tregillis is committed to his alt-history in a way too many writers aren't. The implications of these 'catchy' ideas, so far as they pertain to warfare, are horrific - and Tregillis follows through with those implications. It indicates a level of familiarity with real WWII atrocities. At the same time, this strength also becomes a weakness when coupled with some other mis-steps. So much death and human misery does not make for very happy reading. There's no levity in bitter seeds, nor even some light and shade. It leaves the reader feeling empathy for - but also much like - people in wartime: exhausted, depressed, fearful, gray. Perhaps this wouldn't have been so noticeable, if Tregillis characterisation was both stronger and more varied. Unfortunately, for a book spanning an entire world war, it only has about four major characters. Worse, with one exception, they are all quite similar. Bitter Seeds is a book almost wholly devoid of women, and certainly devoid of women in any meaningful roles (bar one). The men the novel follows for its bulk are quite similar, their lines and reactions, in part because of the action orientated plot, could well be interchangeable, and their moral/mental/physical declines are predictable, and depressing. But I could forgive all this for the strengths of the book, barring one unconscionable thing: the ending. Reader be warned - Bitter Seeds has no ending. The book doesn't end, nothing is resolved, no arcs are completed, nothing. This isn't a novel, it's the first third of a novel, and realising that on the last page was infuriating. I am not against a series, but you need to have smaller narratives within a greater one - and Bitter Seeds absolutely does not. Nothing set up in this book is finished by its conclusion, and after putting up with so much misery and turmoil, the lack of catharsis is frustrating. I paid for a book, not a chapter. I don't know if I can be bothered with the sequel; the promise of more of the same is not very alluring to me.
The Ritual

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Horror is a genre I keep flirting with, but the pursuit ever leaves me disappointed. Sadly, The Ritual confirms to this rule; its promise squandered in an all-too-typical second half.Four friends set off for a weekend in the Swedish wilderness, but an all-advised shortcut takes them deep into primeval forest. Worse, they are not alone in the woods...So frustrating. The beginning of The Ritual is quite good. The friends are largely inexperienced in the woods, and the discomfort of the weather and their fraying nerves - and the growing conviction that they are being watched - is wonderfully creepy, culminating when they stumble across a deserted cabin. Alas, it's all downhill from there. Once the monster is revealed, the book definitely loses some of its spark, but where it really falls apart is the cliched second half - radically different in tone, pace, and setting than the first. The second part throws credibility out the window to engage in some genre cliches, along with ubiquitous (non-scary; is it ever scary?) violence. I suppose the fault is mine in some ways. I'm looking to recapture the feeling of chill I used to get from top notch Victorian ghost stories and writers like Robert Aickman. Horror, as a genre, doesn't do a lot of that, preferring I think something more akin to horror movies as a genre - and it leaves me cold. The Ritual is certainly not the worst horror novel I've read by a long shot, but every single thing in it was done better, a hundred years ago by William Hope Hodgson, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen et al.
Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked

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Give Me Everything You Have is an erudite, peripatetic memoir of the author's cyber-bullying (which is not to trivialise, but what happens to Lasdun is not really stalking). Though it loses steam in the last quarter, it's a nonetheless fascinating recollection, held together by Lasdun's charisma and intelligence.After a talented graduate of his writing class resumes contact, Lasdun, a somewhat introverted even awkward writer, finds himself beginning an exciting new friendship - a rareish event. Unfortunately, Nasreen, the new friend, is not as stable as she first appears, and soon starts living up to the book's title. This is not a typically "stalker" memoir. There's not a whole lot of narrative, and almost nothing in the way of suspense. What Lasdun supplies, however, is a passel of literary and historical allusions, and a winning - and frank - authorial voice. In attempting to make sense of what's happening to him, Lasdun can't help but parse events through his lenses as writer and critic. Allusions and rich histories bloom, by turns compelling, funny, sad. And Lasdun can't help deconstructing and assessing these byways, leaving the creative connection of the writer, and the shrewd dissection of the critic. This is abetted by his frank - and frankly charming - confessions. Lasdun is bemused to be an object of obsession, viewing himself as neither sexy nor dynamic. Rather, he sees himself as a shy, some awkward if not actively bumbling figure. Wise in classics and metaphor but not so much the sturm und drang of human relations. His willingness to confront his own self-image - and his own foibles and feelings - make the book a far more honest affair than most confessionals. The fact he possesses the vocabulary and knowledge to articulate both help greatly. This lack of drive to the novel does slow it down in the last quarter, however, as Lasdun takes his biggest digression into antisemitism on the whole and a trip to Jerusalem he takes as a freelancer. Sad to say, this section reads like a bit of a fill-in for length, and bears the stale hint of recycling about it. Whilst it's possible the Jerusalem trip may have had a huge impact on his thinking about the bullying, and a huge impact on his life at the time, the addition felt a little forced and meandering to me. Still, this was the only point in what was - by its very nature - a very digressive book, and the good outweighs this small mar.
The Tourist

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The Tourist is an interesting one, a semi-cerebral spy novel. Fans will recognise elements of both John Le Carre, and Robert Ludlam in the book, though regrettably I feel that the latter overcomes the former by the conclusion.Milo is a former Tourist - a covert operative for the CIA. When an assassin he's hunted for years shows up, Milo finds himself catapulted back into his former role, with all the risks that entails. I was a little bit frustrated by this book. Parts of it are quite good - Steinhauer has a solid grip on his narrative, and the prose is unobtrusive and gets the job done. Unfortunately the plot wavers between being more and less preposterous, and it actively undermines the dry, hard-bitten tone that Steinhauer is aiming for. There's some confusion between machismo and masculinity and it leaves the book feeling a bit ridiculous at times. This is compounded by a - I have no idea if it is or not, but it reads - implausible view of the CIA, more suited to a flashy television show or movie than a novel. The mistake I think lies in thinking - like many a movie - that drama and excitement must come from external sources. In reality, by far the most compelling aspects of the novel are Milo's ambivalent relationship to his former status as "Tourist", and the eroding connection to his family.So, the book is entertaining, but ultimately a little disappointing. Definitely a beach read, and not comparable to Le Carre.
Firebreak: A Parker Novel

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Another excellent neo-noir Parker story, this one has the additional complication of two competing plot threads.Parker has been approached to help rip off a dotcom billionaire with some Dutch masters stashed in the basement. But before he can get to that, he needs to do something about the hit that's just been taken out on him. Old friends and new pop up in Firebreak, and Parker's brutal efficiency will be called upon more than once.I liked this Parker novel a lot - like all of them. Written after Stark's decades-long break from Parker, it's refreshing to see some characters from early book re-surface. It's easy to think of Parker as a Fugitive-like figure, every day a new chapter, and I enjoyed seeing his past catch up with him in positive and negative senses. The heist, as usual, is meticulously paced and plotted and - to this non-criminal - utterly plausible. Stark's age and relative ignorance regarding computers and the internet does show here - as is often the case, the "hackers" in the story may as well put on wizard caps for all the magic they're capable of. But that is a churlish, niggling criticism. The brevity of the Parker novels make reading them a breeze, and they also give the books a heady, irresistible propulsion. Something happens on every page of a Parker book, and that something is usually rough, well-written, and sometimes even funny. Great stuff.
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