Friday, 20 March 2015

Readable but flawed - Natural Causes by James Oswald

[I've opted to put a few things in spoiler tags in this review - highlight the grey boxes to make them readable.]

James Oswald's Inspector McLean books have been cropping up regularly on my radar for a good while now, but as a crime agnostic I'd never felt particularly inclined to read them. I was, however, encouraged when this one made the Richard and Judy bookclub list last summer which can be a bit hit and miss for my tastes but is usually an encouraging sign. R&J bookclub picks usually score well for readability.

Which is what I think about this one. It's readable...eventually. It took me 20% to start caring and 40-45% to get properly hooked (which is an achievement, hooking me usually means 4 stars).

Natural Causes presents itself as a crime novel and this is a problem. It is a crime novel, but it's something else as well: a supernatural thriller.

I was aware of this second genre before I read the book and the reason I've put it in spoiler tags is because it massively, massively derailed an awful lot of the book for me. There were many instances where I'd nod to myself thinking "Ah, I see what you are doing here", only for it to come to nothing (although I suspect these things may Be Important in later books in the series). There are also plenty of other smallish things which don't really pertain to the plot of this book - like McLean's inheritance - which leaves it feeling flabby and loose where it needs to be tight and confident. Rather like myself.

The second problem with this Other Genre is that there's not enough of it. Only in the final throws of the novel do we get a commitment and by that point there's not enough time or context to make it work properly. The final conversation between McLean and his boss about the case is almost comically bizarre.

"So, Tony, It turns out to have been a demon from beyond the pits of hell, does it?"
"Yes, Ma'am, that's right"
"Well, I expect you've got a lot of paperwork to be catching up on."

It's a difficult one because if the book *had* shown its hand earlier, it would have changed a lot about it and I suspect it may have ended up being either derivative or ridiculous. Then again, it may have helped to give it more of an identity. I can't think of many books I've felt this divided over: it manages to be readable (eventually) yet broken in a fairly fundamental way.

It's also fairly relentless at times. There are an awful lot of dead bodies, more than 10, not all victims and not all in the case McLean is investigating. At one point, I thought I was going to need a diagram to help me remember which bodies went with which case, let alone which cases McLean was supposed to be investigating and which ones he was merely involving himself with.

The first half is also rather repetitive with regards to McLean being knackered. If the poor bloke had just been able to go off duty and not have somebody die, or not ruminate on somebody who had died at some point in the past, matters would have been improved immensely. Allowing it to effect the plot would have been even better. Instead, there's just an endless series of conversations about the sleep McLean should be getting but isn't.

I also spent far too much time as a reader ahead of him. Far too often, McLean realised something he should have put together earlier, or else remembered something only at that moment. The book didn't progress due to his actions enough.

However, for all the flaws, this was a very readable book. I'm giving it 3 stars, which is 2 stars for the confusing plot - which despite have eighty bajillion different cases, everything turned out to wrap up with case McLean cared about the most: the dead girl - and 3.5 for being engaging. I'm interested in reading other books in the series, but either as a Library book or a cheaply priced one. I'm tempted to skip ahead to books 3 or 4 in the hope they are tighter in their plotting (Books 1 and 2 were originally self-published).

Natural Causes: Inspector McLean 1 (Inspector Mclean Mystery) on AmazonUK

(This review was originally published on my Booklikes blog in April 2014)

Friday, 13 March 2015

*sadface* - The Echo by James Smythe

Regular payers of attention will know I like James Smythe. A lot. He's a sci-fi writer, but of the human character type rather than the epic space opera type. He is Ridley Scott and Duncan Jones rather than George Lucas.

The Echo is the followup to The Explorer (my review: very good, although not the most original idea, 4 stars) and is the second of what we are now required to call The Anomaly Quartet. Set 20 years after the disappearance of the Ishiguro, two scientists, identical twins Mira and Thomas, realise their ambition of launching another vessel into the depths of space in order to study the black anomaly the Ishiguro disappeared into. Thomas remains on earth, at mission command, while Mira relates the story from the ship.

This is a follow-up rather than a sequel. The Explorer stands alone completely and plotwise there's no great dis or advantage to having read it, only a degree of enrichment to Mira's accounts of what he - and the people on earth - believe happened to the Ishiguro. Yet, even that doesn't do much other than show Smythe up as somebody who appears to have thought this whole thing through, the cad, so no worries about reading that one first (although you should because it's much better).

Inevitably, I'm going to compare the two books and The Echo comes off decidedly worse. Where The Explorer was tense and tightly done, The Echo feels flabby and overlong. Cormac Easton's journey had a slow inexorability about it as he watched his earlier self in the loop; Mira is vulnerable, procrastinating and fearful. And kind of dull.

One of the strongest parts of the novel is the relationship between Mira and Thomas. Thomas is a voice whose responses gain ever more delay as the distance between them widens, but his is the hand with ultimate control of the ship. We are in Mira's head with his versions of things, his needs and emotions - and his views of Thomas and what he thinks Thomas will do.

It is either repetitive or subtly ironic that we follow the same duel route of what-happens-on-the-ship/unpeeling-narrator's-psyche-to-reveal-their-truth of The Explorer. I found it a bit ho hum at the time, Mira's scientific detachment feeling more like self-obsession while the crew are a collection of characters who avoid absolute cliche, but still wouldn't feel out of place in half a dozen films I can think of, or even in The Explorer.

I like this author and he's getting the advantage of that - I've already got The Machine on my Kindle and I'll definitely want to read the next part of this quartet. While this is very like its predecessor, but where that had its own identity, this feels an imitation of that. This is a three star read which gets an extra half because I was already interested when I began: 3.5 stars.

The Echo on AmazonUK

(This review was originally posted on my Booklikes blog in April 2014)

Monday, 9 March 2015

If this were a film, I'd want Duncan Jones to direct it - The Explorer by James Smythe

If you asked me, and I've no reason to suppose that you wouldn't because I'm fairly anti-social and all your attempts at conversation would meet with bored glances until you got onto the subject of books at which point I would become sufficiently enlivened to answer the questions you would surely be asking if you weren't concentrating quite so hard on backing away slowly, I'd tell you I don't like sci-fi books. I don't know why I think this because I can't think of a sci-fi book I haven't enjoyed. What I can think of are a few dozen books I've read the blurbs of at the library and put down again because I'm prejudiced against books in which the protagonist's name scores more than 38 points in Scrabble.

The Explorer is the story of a journey. Mankind go into space. They will go out, they will turn around, they will come back triumphant. Our protagonist is Cormac Easton, a journalist who's on the crew to provide the people back home with the story. He is the human in a craft staffed by highly trained boffins, one of whom is dead when they wake up after take-off.

The blurb of this one is at once incredibly misleading and incredibly accurate. It suggests you're going to get something action packed with Cormac trying to avoid dying - you're not. This is a tense, tightly plotted novel of the kind which doesn't make you wonder what's going to happen, it makes you watch as it does. I'm not going to tell you anything else about the plot because I think it would spoil it, I will however tell you that the blurb covers the first 20%ish *raises eyebrows in a significant fashion*

I'm not a big reader of sci-fi so I honestly don't know how it stacks up against the rest of the genre, but I would push it on people who like books about humans and their humanity. It's the big empty, close-up view of a person and their head.

If I have a criticism, it's probably with the story. I loved the way it was handled, the way it was written, but it's not terribly original. That said, it avoids feeling derivative and it brings its own identity to the party so I don't have a problem with it. I just like to complain.

I really enjoyed it and I'm looking forward to reading the followup, The Echo. Which I actually already have. Spooky.

4 stars.

The Explorer on AmazonUK

 (This review was originally posted on my Booklikes blog in April 2014)

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Nice Idea, Well Executed - Zero Sum Game by SL Huang

Cas Russell is good at maths. Really good. As in calculating where to apply to correct amount of power to kick a chair so it causes maximum damage to the person standing in front of it good. As in working out the trajectory of bullets as they are fired so they don't hit you in leg good. Which is useful for somebody working under the radar as a freelance ... retriever.

But while maths can be really useful, it's not the best defence against somebody who can read your mind and implant thoughts in it. So when Cas finds herself up against said telepath, she not only has some nefarious schemes to scupper, she's also got to be sure she's not unknowingly helping them along.

Zero Sum Game is the debut novel from SL Huang and it's pretty good. Not only does it feature a main character who manages to kick asses while being female, her superpower is maths. Or 'math', because this book is American. The only thing my maths skills have done for me is enable me to always buy the most cost effective bag of dishwasher tablets even when I don't have a calculator.

I've heard a lot of good things about this one so I was initially a bit disappointed. The opening was underwhelming - not because it did anything wrong; it read like the action sequence which preceeds the credits of a blockbuster film which was fine and everything, just ... meh. However, by 16% it had me. Cas is a witty voice (I will admit, I slightly want to be her. I want to throw sticks.) and she's joined by a cast who complement her nicely. I especially liked the interplay between her and Arthur - he's a nice (if marginally predictable) foil to Cas's Lone Ranger attitude, a dose of empathy in situations where some things need remembering.

The ways in which this could have gone horribly wrong are many and, all credit to Huang, it didn't. When you've got a first person narrator who may not be acting of her own volition you need to get it right and Huang mostly did. The pace keeps things moving forward and it was only towards the end, when that began to slacken, that I felt some minor irritation with a couple of things.

While I was reading it, this was on course for 4 stars - I usually have 2 books on the go, one upstairs and one downstairs; if I carry a book to another floor with me, it's a good sign - but the ending is also underwhelming. It's not bad, just weak. Although the book stands alone, it's the first in a projected series (Book 2, Half Life, is out now) and much of what I disliked were the manoeuvres in the final third, the necessary setting-up of strands for future books.

Zero Sum Game is a seriously enjoyable read for the most part. It's got a great premise, a main character who does it justice, and a story which kept me reading. If only the ending had been better. 3.5 stars and I'll likely be getting the next book in the future.

Zero Sum Game (Russell's Attic Book 1) on AmazonUK