Books

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

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If you wander into any High Street book store at the moment you’ll almost certainly stumble across Noah Hawley’s novel Before the Fall placed in prominent locations. Part of that is because Hawley has become something of a star name and hot property thanks to his day job as showrunner and lead writer of the successful Fargo and Legion television series. I confess it was his name on the cover that initially drew my interest too. However, I stayed because of the book’s concept – and pretty soon I ended up paying for a copy because I was by then hooked after reading the first chapter.

Before the Fall starts with a plane crash. A private jet chartered by TV news executive David Bateman to take him, his wife Maggie and their two young children along with family friends Ben and Sarah Kipling and bodyguard Gil Baruch back to New York City from their holiday home in Martha’s Vineyard ends up plummeting into the Atlantic. Of the eleven passengers and flight crew aboard, there are only two survivors: one of them is Scott Burroughs, a failed painter who shouldn’t even have been on the flight but who now finds his life transformed by the experiences he goes through. Read the rest of this entry »

Oasis E1 “Pilot” (Amazon Prime), and The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

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Last week I wrote about Sneaky Pete, an Amazon Prime original show that had gone through the ‘pilot season’ of being selected for a full ten-part series commission based on viewers’ comments and ratings. Another previously reviewed series, Bosch, also made it to series based on positive fan response compared with tepid critical reaction, and thank goodness it did.

This year, science fiction drama Oasis is one of five new pilots up for consideration. Set in a dystopian 2032, the story centres on Christian chaplain Peter Leigh who receives a request to travel to Oasis, Earth’s first off-world colony. Said to be located on the far side of the galaxy, the method of travel is not explained. When Peter arrives he finds that the person who asked for him to come – the colony’s founder, billionaire David Morgan – is missing, and no one knows why he wanted Peter there in the first place. Meanwhile the workforce is starting to experience hallucinations and an escalating number of serious and even fatal accidents that suggest the new world is rejecting their presence. Eventually Peter discovers a clue as to Morgan’s whereabouts and travels deep into the wilderness, where he makes a bewildering discovery in a cave… Read the rest of this entry »

Christmas reading: 61 Hours by Lee Child; The Santa Klaus Murder by Mavis Doriel Hay; The Redeemer by Jo Nesbø

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To conclude this week’s mini-run of Christmas reviews I thought I’d turn from the screen to the printed page. In my efforts to get into the festive spirit I had decided to read three books over the holidays with a common theme of Christmas and/or snow and ice, but all of them featuring murder of some kind or another… Read the rest of this entry »

Five Red Herrings, by Dorothy L Sayers

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I think it would be fair to say that Dorothy L Sayer’s book Five Red Herrings isn’t one of the best or most well-loved of her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels.

fiveredherringsIt’s certainly not one of her books that I had read until very recently, but a repeat of the Ian Carmichael radio adaptation on BBC Radio 4 Extra the other week prompted me to turn to the novel – since I kept falling asleep listening to the late night radio repeat and soon didn’t have a clue what on earth was going on! While dropping off was entirely my fault and casts no aspersion over the radio version, it soon become clear that this is a mystery that simply has to be read first on on the page if one is to have any hope of following the plot.

Even then, this is a flawed book. Usually Sayers’ strength is to take us to places we’ve never been and bring them beautifully to life, whether it’s the flat lands of East Anglia or the cloisters of an all-women’s college, and to fascinate us with an education in the unlikeliest subjects (from bell ringing to 1930s advertising and the intricacies of inheritance law), she’s also able to bring characters to life and tell a beguiling tale at the same time. And in those last two respects, Five Red Herrings – the sixth of her novels featuring the aristocratic detective – rather fails to make the usual grade. Read the rest of this entry »

Inspector Montalbano

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A very strange thing happened to me in August.

As long-time readers of Taking The Short View will know, I have a particular liking for BBC4’s Saturday evening subtitled Euro-noir slot. Ever since the breakthrough appearance of the original Swedish Wallander shows in 2008, through the highs of Forbrydelsen, The Bridge and Borgen and on to the more varied and far-flung fare such as Mammon, Salamander, Corden and even the distinctly non-subtitled, non-Euro The Code I’ve been a fan of them all. With one singular exception to the rule in the form of the Italian entry to the line-up, Inspector Montalbano, which I’ve never been able to get into and enjoy. Try as I might, I’ve never got further in than ten minutes before throwing my hands up in surrender and finding something else to do with my Saturday nights instead.

And I really have tried. Albert Einstein once said that a definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, and that must mean I’ve proven myself pretty crazy since that’s exactly what I did: every time BBC4 would start a new run of Montalbano stories I’d sit down and give it another try, and sure enough I had the same failure to launch on each occasion. It simply wasn’t going to happen, and yet still I stubbornly persisted in at least giving it a try – because, y’know, sometimes mad things do happen, right? So it came to pass that I sat down for my traditional ‘give it another go’ when BBC4 reran the six episodes of the Montalbano prequel miniseries in August, fully expecting the same crash and burn to ensue as usual.

And then the strange thing happened… Read the rest of this entry »

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

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library-coverFeeling somewhat bereft by having just finished reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, I was pleased to find the eBook of Genevieve Cogman’s début novel on summer offer at Amazon.co.uk and I duly snapped it up, seeing how it contained more stories of alternate worlds, magic and faeries. However The Invisible Library is absolutely nothing like Susanna Clarke’s much-celebrated tale: where the latter had been intricately constructed and exquisitely detailed, Cogman has no such pretensions for her own story which is quite simply just a good, old-fashioned, fast-moving rollicking action-adventure yarn.

Irene is an agent of the eponymous institution that exists outside of normal time and space. Librarians are dispatched to various alternate realities to retrieve rare books, and we first meet Irene in a ‘pre-credits teaser sequence’ (in cinematic parlance) mid-assignment obtaining one such tome from a school for magic that has the distinct whiff of Hogwarts to it. When she gets back from that mission she’s immediately handed a new assistant called Kai and packed off to a much more dangerous location, a steampunk Victorian London that’s been infested by chaos – chaos being the mortal arch-enemy of any genuine, right-thinking Librarian of course. Read the rest of this entry »

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke (2004)

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Contains spoilers for the TV show and for the novel

This is not a repeat! I say again, this is not a repeat.

200px-Jonathan_strange_and_mr_norrell_coverYou may recall that a couple of months ago I handed out my somewhat less than enamoured views on the first two episodes of BBC One’s big new Sunday night drama adaptation Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and confessed that it simply hadn’t really been to my liking. The period tale of magical fantasy had been just a little too way out and weird not to mention somewhat over the top and florid for my liking, and my views didn’t really change over the course of the remainder of the seven-part series – although at least on the upside I did just about stick with it to the end. The final episode was the most difficult when everything was turned up to eleventy-stupid as far as I was concerned, but at the same time it also contained the single best scene of the entire series in the form of a quiet moment of simple honesty and reconciliation between the two titular characters just before everything went to Hell or thereabouts.

I admitted at the time of my original review that I hadn’t read the original novel by Susannah Clarke from which the television serial was adapted, and moreover added that I had no real desire to. That comment was picked up by a couple of friends of mine, who both insisted that I absolutely must do so. I was very resistant to the idea – why read a book when the TV version had not been to my taste in the first place? Plus I rarely read a book after having seen the film or TV version since I find that re-covering such recently trodden familiar ground is so tedious that I invariably lose interest and stop reading part-way through. However the friends in question are smart and frighteningly well-informed, and when I also found that the eBook was on special offer to coincide with the TV broadcast I realised I didn’t even have a financial leg to stand on to help me put it off. As a result I duly did as I was told and bought the book and gave it a go, wondering just how many chapters I had to plough through before I could in all honesty stop and say in good faith that I’d given it the good old college try and that my initial prejudices had been confirmed and that enough was enough and could I read something else now? Read the rest of this entry »

The Falcon Throne by Karen Miller, and The Emperor’s Blades by Brian Staveley

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I know, I know, there’s been a dearth of new posts on Taking The Short View for over a month – at least, until the drought was finally broken at the weekend with a new review of an old Hayao Miyazaki film. I can assure you that the lull hasn’t been down to any particular inattention or disinterest on my part, but more to do with the fact that I simply didn’t find anything to review or to write about in February. The television programs I was watching were all on-going series that I’d covered here in the past, and much the same applied to the things I viewed on DVD/Blu-ray. There were no film or show outings to speak of either.

I have been merrily reading away, but here my time has been taken up with two fairly long books. They’re both quite similar and in the same genre (fantasy) and neither of them have been entirely successful in satisfying me. I don’t like to be too harsh about books – as the product of one person, the criticism of a book invariably feels more personal than that for a TV show or film where hundreds if not thousands of people have been involved – so I wasn’t in a rush to write up my thoughts about them. But seeing as there’s a scarcity of other material, I guess I’d better knuckle down to it… Read the rest of this entry »

Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson

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steelheart.jpgConsidering that I only reviewed Brandon Sanderson’s first Mistborn novel “Final Empire” just last month, it might look as though I went off specifically looking for someone else of his to read as a quick follow-up. That’s not actually the case: while the fact that I’d liked Mistborn certainly meant that I was open to further outings in Sanderson’s literary world, it was purely the basic concept that drew me to “Steelheart”, the first in a different trilogy of novels under the umbrella title Reckoners; oh, and the fact that the Kindle book was on offer at Amazon.co.uk as part of a promotion supporting the launch of the second book in the trilogy. But at the same time, I’ll concede that the fact I’d already enjoyed one of Sanderson’s novels made me much more amenable to acting on my impulse to buy a second.

The concept that caught my eye was the idea of a world in which comic book superpowers became a reality – but with a horrible twist. Only people who are (or who become) evil manifest powers, and with no one able to stand against them they quickly become tyrants and capricious killers, no more interested in or respectful of ordinary human lives as they would be an ants nest. “Steelheart” is set ten years into the emergence of these so-called ‘Epics’ which in the interim has caused the complete collapse of human society which is now utterly subordinate to those with superpowers. With no superheroes on the horizon to balance the equation, hope has all but gone out of the world. It’s a set-up that I loved the moment I read it and found completely irresistible. Read the rest of this entry »

“Mystery” (2011) and “Time Bomb” (1990), by Jonathan Kellerman

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mysteryI’ve been reading Jonathan Kellerman’s Los Angeles-set crime series based on the character of child psychologist Alex Delaware ever since I stumbled across the first in the now 30-strong series when I was an undergraduate student at the University of York. That was a very long time ago indeed, and a lot of water has flowed under the bridge – and equally a lot of words have flowed from Kellerman’s pen in the meantime.

Where once I would be an avid reader of the latest Delaware thriller, I’ve fallen behind with the series in recent years and the book I just got around to reading over the New Year – Mystery – was actually released in 2011. In it, Alex investigates the death of a young woman after it turns out he and his partner Robin were among the last people to see her alive at a downtown bar the previous evening. The trail leads to a high-end online dating site, interviews with a number of people who may or may not be involved, and another dead body turning up in LA scrubland before things are wrapped up. Read the rest of this entry »

The Martian, by Andy Weir

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Clearly Andy Weir started researching and writing his book well in advance but he could have hardly timed the publication of his first novel The Martian better, coming as it did in the wake of the enormously successful 2013 film Gravity starring Sandra Bullock. That movie shares this book’s overriding theme of one person struggling to survive against the odds in space when disaster strikes on what should otherwise be a ‘routine’ mission – although unfortunately, real life disaster as well as those in fiction remind us that space travel is a dangerous business and never as routine as we like to think it is.

While Gravity is set in orbit around the Earth, The Martian is located considerably further afield – and the title has probably already let slip the fact that it is set on the surface of Mars, sometime in the near future when such manned missions prove viable. An emergency mission abort and evacuation during a fierce dust storm results in one of the six astronauts being killed and left behind – only, it subsequently turns out that he’s not actually dead after all. It’s far too late for his crew mates to be able to turn around and come get him even if they knew he was still alive, so Mark Watney has to survive on his own as best he can with the woefully insufficient and inadequate equipment and provisions he’s been left with. Those were meant to last a month; now he needs to find some way to stay alive for two years. Read the rest of this entry »

Mistborn Book One: Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

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In my ongoing attempts to broaden my knowledge of the fantasy literacy genre I soon came across the name of Brandon Sanderson, although it was initially in the context of his having been selected to complete The Wheel of Time series begun by the late Robert Jordan. Pretty soon I also came across his solo novels about the Mistborn, and thought I’d rather like to give the first of the trilogy (Final Empire) a try.

The only problem was the price: since when did ten pounds become the going price for a not-particularly-new novel (the first instalment was originally published in 2006)? Not only that, but the edition that I picked up on Waterstones had an eye-catching cover design but otherwise felt rather on the cheap and nasty side – a cardboard cover, coarse paper, and rather thick and blurry printing. Yes, such tactile concerns really do influence my buying decisions – for example, the last physical book I bought and read was Justin Richards’ The Suicide Exhibition even though it cost only one pound less, precisely because it had a really nice feel to it.

In the end of course I turned to Kindle, and when I was shopping around I found that a combined edition of all three Mistborn novel came to just under nine pounds – three e-books for less than the price of a single printed one. I’d have been silly to say no, and indeed I’m glad I acted when I did because I note that the price of the omnibus edition has shot up in the week since I did so, in which case I would likely have decided not to bother with it at all. Instead, I seized the moment and bought the trilogy at the lower price and consider it one of my better purchases of the entire year. Read the rest of this entry »

The Suicide Exhibition, by Justin Richards

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Work obligations and a couple of misstarts with books that failed to grab my attention means that it’s been ages since I last managed to sit down with a book and make it all the way through to the finish, but fortunately Justin Richards’ The Suicide Exhibition helped me break my literary dry spell.

Without going into plot details, the book is set in World War 2 with the Nazis on the trail of what they believe is either occult or alien technology that will help them win the war with Britain. The Allies are several steps behind them, still bumbling about with the most basic of breadcrumbs and with their hands tied by the needs for wartime secrecy and also by in-fighting between the different branches of the government’s war efforts. However, the truth gradually takes shape – and it’s soon clear that a whole new threat is emerging, not just to the Nazis or the Allies but to the entire human race.

It’s not exactly a hugely original set-up: the book has been variously compared to Raiders of the Lost Ark, Quatermass, Alien, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The X-Files, Dark Skies and the work of HP Lovecraft, with added traces of James Bond, Dick Barton, Richard Hannay, Bulldog Drummond and every wartime film you’ve ever seen on Sunday afternoon. It’s also hard to shake the shadow of Doctor Who in there as well, and you rather expect the Time Lord to wander in at some point and take charge of clearing up the situation before it gets too out of hand. Read the rest of this entry »

Death and the Pregnant Virgin, by ST Haymon

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A couple of weekends ago, some Twitter posts from an arts and literature festival in Norfolk mentioning the 1980s crime novels of local author ST (Sylvia Theresa) Haymon were retweeted into my timeline and succeeded in piquing my interest. Upon further investigation I found that the first of the novels – Death and the Pregnant Virgin – was available in e-book format for just 59p, and for that sort of price it really did seem positively rude not to try it out.

In this story, a religious festival celebrating the recent discovery of the priceless Our Lady of Promise icon in the picturesque Norfolk country village of Mauthen Barbary is shockingly interrupted when one of the festival maidens is found bludgeoned to death in the shrine. She was also four months pregnant despite being a virgin, just the first of a series of revelations – and further deaths – to shake both the locals and Inspector Ben Jurnet.

The book feels distinctly old fashioned even allowing for the fact that it was written in 1980 – insert your own pun here about Norfolk being perennially 30 years behind the times at any given stage. Consequently it feels more like one of Agatha Christie’s vintage Miss Marple novels from the 1940s or 50s, with the suspects confined to an isolated rural community and the investigation very much revolving around means, motive and opportunities, which entails a lot of careful tracking of who was where and when with the more modern obsessions with forensics and DNA notably absent from consideration. Read the rest of this entry »