The Defence – Steve Cavanagh

This is the first of the novels about con-man turned lawyer Eddie Flynn. (You can see my review of the fourth, here.) There is a novella (The Cross) which I have not read.

Be warned: the plot is far fetched. A mobster has kidnapped Eddie’s daughter and is forcing him to wear a bomb while he defends said mobster. The aim is to blow up the chief prosecution witness. It doesn’t help that this trail is somewhat in the public eye, and the FBI have more than a passing interest.

Eddie uses his full range of tricks to try and get out of the mess and save his daughter. The author delivers a tense, seat of your pants adventure. If you can suppress your disbelief in the fanciful plot, you will have a great time.

The writing and Eddie’s solid characterization puts this at a level above the usual airport disposable novel.

Recommended.

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Zion’s Fiction

I am a fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, preferably in novel form. All too often, the short story form neither excites nor interests me. There have been some exceptions, but generally I keep away from short stories.

As you may have guessed, Zion’s Fiction – a collection of Israeli fantasy and science fiction short stories – was an exception. It wasn’t only that I wanted to support this venture, but also that I knew almost nothing about the local fantasy and SF scene, and this was a perfect opportunity to start learning about it.

The Foreword (by Robert Silverberg) is fine.

The Introduction (by editors Sheldon Teitelbaum and Emmanuel Lottem) is informative, but a real slog. It’s a touch too much of the high brow, and also seems focused on squeezing every last one of the editors’ pals and acquaintances in. The worst part is that it did not engage me. The writing seemed limp and lifeless, with an absence of humor. I’m sure some others will love it.

Most of the stories were OK, but truly no more than that. There wasn’t one that made me think ‘Wow, I’m really glad I read that.’ Unfortunately, there were a couple that made me think ‘Wow, I’m really sorry I wasted my time reading that.‘ In short, a big disappointment.

The best of the stories, to my mind, is Keren Landsman‘s Burn Alexandria. (I believe Keren, who writes in Hebrew, has a novel coming out in English this year from publishers Angry Robot. ) Perhaps this seemed better because it’s one of the longer pieces and had time to develop more fully. The end, however, was exactly as I anticipated, and left me somewhat underwhelmed.

Probably the best known author of the lot is Lavie Tidhar. His The Smell of Orange Groves reminded me of work by China Mieville. That’s not a good thing. The story did not work for me. It came across as half an idea, half a dream, and wholly missing the entertainment point. Not for me, old boy.

The Afterword by Aharon Hauptman is spot on: short, snappy, and to the point. Well done that man!

I am sure – he said, entering optimist mode – that there are many great pieces of Israeli science fiction and fantasy out there. But none of them are in this book. At least I bloody well hope not.

Avi Katz‘s illustrations are OK, and the cover is clever.

But the best thing about it? The title.

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The Baltimore Boys – Joël Dicker

I was a bit disappointed by the heavily promoted first book from Joel Dicker (see my review of The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair here), but this time around I was more than pleasantly surprised.

Once again it’s a novel about an author writing a book, this time featuring the (fictional) author’s earlier life story of growing up with his two cousins. The life journey of the kids – the Baltimore Boys – is told with love, care, and just the right amount of detail. The book is full of different perspectives on family and success, love and disenchantment, though packaged and delivered with an over abiding sense of compassion. The author gets his characters and makes them come alive on the page.

The plot unfolds smoothly, and the various story threads come together in a near perfect weave as we are brought up to date.

Whereas the first book was too long and self indulgently involved, I did not find the Baltimore Boys to be that way at all. If anything, there were occasions when I wanted to know a tad more.

The story of these kids growing up in America is really a story that also features their families. The respective parents and one set of grandparents feature extensively, and their characterizations seemed authentic, and nuanced. There is one part of this accuracy about the family, however, that concerns me, to which I will return later.

I read and reread one outstanding scene where a movie executive lectures the author about how books are dying and moves are the only thing worth having – apart from money, of course! Brilliant. It’s where naivety meets the gold standard of the free market, and damn the consequences.

This novel is highly entertaining, and well worth your time. Don’t bother with the other book. Just read this.

Before I forget, some praise for the translator: Alison Anderson. If it din’t say on the book that it had been translated from French, I would not have known. The text flowed fluently. Great job Alison!

Now, the part of the story that troubles me most is to do with Judaism. The main characters are Jewish. How do we know that? It says so – once I think – but apart from that, there are only two outward signs of this, and minor ones at that.

Warning: Plot spoilers ahead!

When there is a funeral, there’s a reference to putting stones on the grave, which is a Jewish tradition. Similarly, the phraseology used to remember the deceased is straight out of Jewish mourning rituals. But that’s it. There’s no mention of the festivals, barmitzvah, or even any passing reference to anything Jewish. To put it another way, the Jewishness of the characters brought absolutely nothing to the story. (So why include it?) I found this to be terribly sad. If it is an accurate representation, then it’s a disaster for American Jewry to have so completely lost their religious identity. What troubles me most, is that this may come from the author’s own world. In other words, it may be autobiographical.

The situation does not detract from the quality of the book. So, if you are still reading, note my recommendation remains that this is indeed a novel worthy of your time.

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The Lizard’s Bite – David Hewson

After a long break, this is me returning to the Nic Costa series from David Hewson. This is the fourth book featuring the art-loving detective and his colleagues.

The story here revolves around Venice and a glass making family thrown into chaos when two of their number die in a strange incident. Being the cops from Rome who have been sent away as a punishment for past misdeeds, the locals give Nic Costa and Gianni Peroni all the crap jobs. This time around, they are told to wrap up the case quickly, or else.

As the investigation proceeds – into the Arcangeli family and their possible savior Hugo Massiter – the easy resolution becomes more and more beyond their reach. And then things get worse.

This is a story told at a measured pace, with a good range of interesting characters, and some finely drawn backdrop. There is action and violence, but in between there is an opportunity to enjoy some good writing, and a plot that keeps on delivering up to the final surprise.

This is a good read. You don’t have to have read all the stories in the series before this, but it would probably increase your enjoyment.

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The Steel Remains – Richard Morgan

The first of a trilogy, this is a fantasy novel by the author of the excellent science fiction book Altered Carbon (worth watching on Netflix). Unfortunately, it does not quite rise to the giddy heights of the latter, though it’s not a bad read, and many will find much to enjoy among its violence, sex, and magic seeped pages.

The book seems to be an attempt to tell three strands of a tale, and then bind them together.

The first is about Ringil, a war hero living his life as a storyteller in a local tavern. He’s a typical sword and sorcery swashbuckler, except that he’s gay.

Then there is Archeth, the Emperor’s pet investigator. She is the last of her race, and offers some kind of link between Ringil and the forces of evil led by the powerful Dwenda.

Finally, Egar Dragonbane, another war hero, stuck in charge of his tribe, and caught in a religious battle he cannot win.

The world building is OK, but a bit disjointed. This is probably because all has not yet been revealed. The pacing of the book is good, with the tension building, and parts of the story really suck you in. Parts. Other parts are not so good, or at least did not draw me in.

Also, I didn’t quite see the melding of the three story lines as being smooth. They are not even strands, and they make for a less than smooth whole. To put it another way, the plot is all over the place.

As for the characters, Ringil is the most rounded, with Archeth and Egar getting the raw end of the deal. I would have preferred to know more about Archeth. Such an imbalance works if the composite effect is of real people – do you get real people in a fantasy novel? – but, to be real, they need to fit in to their world. Here, the characterization structure crumbles, because all around the trio are a veritable forest of cardboard cutouts. Thin ones at that. The effect was like being in a first person shootout; alright, a good one, but that is leagues away from a good story.

Then there’s the sex. There’s a lot of it. I am no prude, but most of it seemed to be gratuitous and do nothing for the advancement of the plot, nor the enrichment of the tale.

On the plus side, there’s enough gutsy action to entertain. The combat scenes were the best written.

Overall, I felt there were some good ideas and interesting hints of characters that needed better kicking into shape before the book could threaten to rise above the average fantasy novel. This is one trilogy, I won’t be persevering with.

 

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22 Dead Little Bodies – Stuart MacBride

This is a contemporary crime collection including:

  • 22 Dead Little Bodies – a short novel
  • Stramash – short story
  • Bad Heir Day – short story
  • The 45% Hangover – novella

All feature the author’s creations, DS Logan McRae and DCI Roberta Steel.

If it’s not a contradiction too far, although there is not much to them – by comparison with the full length novels – they are well put together, and feature some of the trademark snappy dialog, shocking violence, and stories of suburban murder and mayhem. There are also moments of high comedy, though you my wonder if it is appropriate to laugh given the whole circumstances.

I enjoyed all the stories. Bad Heir Day was the most poignant, and 22 Dead Little Bodies the most complete.

If you are a McRae fan, you must read them. If you haven’t encountered McRae, I would recommend starting with one of the novels, because these don’t quite have the same punch and pacing that the novels do.

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Artificial Condition – Martha Wells

After reading the first Murderbot book, I said I would keep a watching brief. That didn’t last long. I was looking for something short and easy to read that would be guaranteed to be entertaining. Overall, I wasn’t disappointed with this, the second in the series of novellas about a security specialist robot that has achieved some form of sentience and independence. But Murderbot has a bloody past, and his – OK, this is an assumption of male identity by me – ongoing, self imposed mission, is to find out what actually happened.

This time around, another party enters the fray. Without spoiling the plot, let’s just say Murderbot is not sure if the new party is friend or foe, and part of the edge of tension in this story is not knowing, as Murderbot attempts to travel to the mining facility where the old massacre occurred.

On the plus side, the story rattles along, with a good side plot involving some clueless humans, and another robot character complicating matters. The Murderbot character continues to develop, and there’s more to find out for sure.

However, once or twice in the action, I felt that Murderer’s capacity to overcome security systems was too much of a super power like ‘get out of jail free’ card, and suggested a certain laziness in the author’s approach. That is not to say I could instantly think of other ways around these systems, but it did mean that I was starting to think Murderbot was becoming invulnerable, and the sense of danger was substantially diminished.

After reading two books in the series, I am not convinced that the overall plotting is any good. The general level of writing is interesting enough, with some nice observations and touches of comedy. And it was a fast, easy read, that did exactly what I was looking for, and no more. But is the whole package worthy? Is this a series of cut down novels, or over-inflated short stories that should not be stitched together? The jury’s out. Maybe I am going back to my watching brief.

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Down Cemetery Road – Mick Herron

Mick Herron wrote the Slow Horses series of books, featuring spy master Jackson Lamb. Reading this precursor, you can see where he got the inspiration from.

Think suburbia. Think domestic normality. Think, home sweet home. It’s all about to end.

A businessman has some people for dinner, and his wife (Sarah) has to play the faithful hostess to support her husband’s drive for more business. The guests do not mix well. Verbal blows are exchanged with only the explosive demolition of a nearby house preventing actual fisticuffs. Sarah becomes obsessed with the little girl who lived in the bombed house, and that sets her off on a terrible trail. She tries to find the girl herself, recruits a private eye, and things go from bad to worse. Sarah is digging herself deeper into a matter of national security, though little does she know it.

This is not a read for those who like to see only the sunny side of things. This is for those who will not shy away from good men becoming corrupted, and bad men becoming successful and powerful.

Although the tale loses its way on a couple of occasions, overall it’s a suspense filled tale, with plenty intriguing characters, action, violence, and food for thought. Sarah’s journey from bored housewife to adventurer is not quite credible, but maybe that’s my cynicism in full flow.

The story itself is not bad, though there were a few loose ends, and the ending seemed to be there only because the author had written enough words to allow him to call a halt. To put it another way, I’m interested enough to want to read the next part. But for now, I’ll withhold judgement.

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The Burial Hour – Jeffery Deaver

Regular hero Lincoln Rhyme stars in this transatlantic hunt, as the forces of law and order seek to find the Composer, responsible for snatching a man from a New York street in broad daylight, leaving behind on the pavement a noose as some sort of clue. The snatch is followed up by an online video displaying the victim’s dying breaths for all to see. Can Rhyme and his newly wed wife, investigator Amelia Sachs, find their man before he strikes again?

This is a strange book, because although it has all the hallmark Deaver features – forensic detail to blow your mind, twists and turns to match, and an off the wall baddie – it never quite delivers the tension and suspense that usually results. For example, one of the support characters is a certain policeman of high rank who writes things down in his little black book. The word is that he is noting those who have crossed him, so he can exact his revenge at a time of his choosing. But, as regular Deaver readers, we know it must be something else. And when the explanation comes, it rather underwhelms, like much of the book. The tension threatens to build, but never quite gets there. It’s as if Deaver is testing his readership, to see how much they will take.

Another example is a character who is a forestry official. We all know he is going to be involved, and the part of the story that develops around his character is neither surprising nor particularly enthralling. In this case it’s a minor character promoted out of his depth to the detriment of the story.

There are parts of the book that are quite good. For example, I was impressed by how the author handled the topic of immigration, and integrated that into the story with a heavy does of realism but without taking away from the main plot line. That part went well. So it would be misleading to say the whole thing is disappointing, but the overall effect doesn’t match expectations from an author – especially a suspense author – of this standing and quality.

If you are a Deaver fan, you may well lap it up. For others, I would recommend you pass on this.

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SF in Israel

The current issue of Locus (a monthly science fiction and fantasy magazine) has a chunky part of it dedicated to the scene in Israel. There’s an introductory piece from Shedlon Teitelbaum, one of the editors of the newly released Zion’s Fiction, a good range of interviews (Shimon Adaf, Yael Furman, Guy Hasson, Aharon Hauptman, Keren Landsman, and Ehud Mainon) and a short review of ICon, the genre convention held in 2018.

I have zero involvement in the scene here, so the information was all new to me. Beyond being a reader of such genre fiction, I have rarely had the inclination to get involved in fan activity. I did attend one convention in Glasgow, but it was largely forgettable. My bucket list might include a visit to a World Science Fiction Convention at some point, but for now I am happy just being a reader and keeping (relatively) up to date thanks to Locus.

So far as the interviews were concerned, most mentioned what you might call the special situation of living in Israel. Presumably that is also reflected in the Hebrew language science fiction and fantasy output, though it will be a while before I want to delve into those and confirm for myself. However, Keren Landsman’s The Heart of the Circle is coming out in English in 2019 from Angry Robot (great name for a publisher) and that’s a must-buy, if only to support the author.

On the whole, if you want to know about the SF scene in Israel, the material is a good primer, and regardless is another opportunity for people to find out more about the country from other than the usual suspects in the media.

For my part, Zion’s Fiction is somewhere in my ‘to-be-read’ pile. I’ll get to it, sometime.

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