Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Dolores Claiborne, by Stephen King

4 stars

Plain speaking Dolores Claiborne was once the long-suffering wife of Joe St George, as well as the long suffering live-in housekeeper/carer for Vera Donovan, the wealthiest woman on Long Tall Island. But Dolores is no longer either of these things and, as she sits down to talk to the police following Vera’s death, we learn how that came to be.

Having married young, Dolores has repented at leisure ever since. When it comes to his wife Joe St George is free with his fists, but cowardly enough to back off when she stands her ground. He’s also twisted enough to start bestowing more than fatherly affection on his fourteen-year old daughter (his defence? “She’ll be fifteen next month”!), and underestimate what a mother will do when she’s desperate enough.

But this is more than just the story of a woman pushed to extremes by an abusive husband. It’s also the story of the unexpected but deep bond, if not friendship, forged between two women and the indignities and horrors of old age, as Dolores’ employer goes from being a formidable, high-ridin’ bitch (whom I adored) to a bed-ridden and senile old lady, stewing in her own faeces and terrorised by hallucinations.

Told in monologue as Dolores narrates her story to what passes for the law on Long Tall Island, I found this an incredibly atmospheric and effective book with the only downside being the flash of the supernatural that occurs during the eclipse. Whilst I love King’s supernatural books, when the story being told is more rooted in the real, unless it’s happening in someone’s imagination I find that his insistence on bringing a little of the unreal into play snaps me out of the spell somewhat. Still, that’s a minor niggle in a book that was otherwise incredibly compelling and that, at times, felt all too real.

Friday, 26 September 2014

Moonlight Mile, by Dennis Lehane

(ish) stars 

While I’ve seen Mystic River, Shutter Island and Gone Baby Gone, I’ve not yet read any Dennis Lehane and so I thought it was probably high time I gave him a go. It turns out that having seen the latter would set me in good stead, as in Moonlight Mile I’d apparently picked up the follow-up to Gone Baby Gone. Not only that, I’d also apparently picked up the last in a series. 

Twelve years ago Patrick Kenzie helped return a missing four year-old to a neglectful mother and a hard life. Now a jaded sixteen, Amanda Macready has vanished once again. And once again Patrick is drawn into tracking her down.

Featuring great characters and smart, witty dialogue there was a lot I enjoyed about Moonlight Mile. I enjoyed the writing style and Lehane was great at giving a little depth to even the most peripheral of characters. Not only that, I loved that Patrick was a flawed man doing his best in a flawed world –the cases that we saw him work all had questionable outcomes, and none more so than the original case of Amanda Macready where doing the right thing meant also doing the wrong thing by pretty much everyone involved. 

However, with the introduction of Yefim and the Russian mob in the last quarter, what we gained in comic banter between he and Patrick didn’t make up for what we also gained in cliché. I’d already been starting to compare it unfavourably with Gone Baby Gone, which was the far more interesting case for me, and the stereotypical psychotic Russian crime boss really didn’t help its cause.

I’m sure I’ll come back to Dennis Lehane again – the writing was far too enjoyable for me not to. But next time I’ll probably do a bit more window-shopping before picking blindly.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Stiff - The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers

by Mary Roach, 4 stars.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that, after dying, there were only a few things that might happen to your cadaver; it could decay in a box six feet under, get burnt and scattered somewhere you loved, or (if you’re a shut-in like me) it could lie undiscovered in your flat for months, providing nourishment for your hungry cats. It turns out that your vacated body has far more options than that. Stiff takes us through the many and varied career options for cadavers, as well as some of those that are thankfully no longer in vogue, in a funny and informative book that gave me plenty of fuel for thought.

Whether it be providing a practical opportunity for surgeons to practice their skills, helping the field of criminal forensics perfect methods of detection and investigation, providing realistic but unfeeling test dummies for safety measures – whether in cars or for troops in battle – or even as human compost, there’s a whole world of good that can be done with your body once you’re no longer using it. There’s also no end of disturbing things that used to be done (and some that still are) such as the examples in the crucifixion experiments, the corpse as medicine, and reanimation.

As for me, I’ve never particularly cared what happened once I’m dead, but having now been given a few options other than the traditional I’ve changed my mind. Much as I wouldn’t torch a house that I’d moved out of so that others could get some use out of it, I now feel the same way about my body. I’ve long been on the Organ Donor Register (if anything’s still working, have at it) and I now quite fancy the idea of advancing the scientific cause in other ways –if I had my way I’d be one of those empty shells lying on a hillside somewhere as scientists check my larvae levels in the hopes an accurate time of death would catch a future psycho. Failing that, I’d also be happy with a spot of human composting, providing fertile ground for some lovely plants to grow from.

If you’re the sort of person who finds phrases like larvae levels and skin slippage stomach-churning you might have a harder time reading this than I did (considering that I’ll vomit if I so much as touch butter, I have a surprisingly strong stomach when it comes to this sort of material), but I guarantee you’ll come away with enough food for thought of your own to make it worthwhile.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Skin Game, by Jim Butcher

4 stars

Not many series, especially those set in the paranormal realm, manage to get 15 books in without showing signs of bloat, slump, or the author no longer feeling any enthusiasm for their creation (as in the case of the terminal decline of the Sookie Stackhouse books). As tall as he is, Skin Game sees Harry Dresden still standing head and shoulders above his contemporaries as we tear through the latest breakneck instalment in the continued development of my favourite wizard-for-hire.

Following the events of Cold Days Harry has spent a long time recovering on his island with just Mab, Demonreach itself, and the parasite that's soon due to burst from his head to keep him company. But not for long, as Mab has loaned Harry out for a job - a particularly awkward one, seeing as Harry will be working for one of his nemeses, the bastardly Denarian Nicodemus Archleone. Archleone has assembled a motley crew of supernatural types (including a not very friendly Yeti) for the heist of the century - he doesn't want to break into any old vault but one belonging to Hades, down in the Underworld.

Butcher yet again does a great job in raising the stakes for Harry while at the same time avoiding one of the more common missteps in the supernatural; while Harry is no longer just a wizard-for-hire but also a Warden of the White Council and Winter Knight, that doesn't mean that he's now nigh invincible and possessing every power imaginable (*cough* Anita Blake *cough*). Instead each new job has brought a different set of responsibilities, a new set of restrictions, and a new set of challenges (especially in the case of negotiating the moral pitfalls of being the Winter Knight).

Keeping us in touch with the human world are the friends Harry calls in to help - good old Murphy who's always got his back, Michael Carpenter, getting a last hurrah as a Knight of the Cross while also raising Harry's cute-as-a-button daughter Maggie (whose moments, along with Mouse, made it a little hard to swallow past the lump in my throat) and, most effectively, Waldo Butters who proves that you don't have to be the smartest, the strongest, or the most fearless to be a total hero. 

While I may have missed not having Toot, Thomas or Bob (except in a small but great cameo), these were minor niggles easily cancelled out by my glee at Harry's new habit of shouting 'Parkour!' every time he moves (as someone who shouts similar at minor movements like getting off the sofa, I wholeheartedly approve) with my biggest niggle being that I'm now up to date with the series, and am going to have to actually wait for the next to be written. Dagnammit!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Wizard, by Marc Seifer

3.5 stars

Wizard is the extremely comprehensive biography of possibly one of the most interesting men to have ever lived, a man so cool they had to get David Bowie to play him – Nikola Tesla.

Before we begin, I should probably make it clear that while I am fascinated by science and the great thinkers that practice it, my mind does not work in that way at all (I only passed my Science GCSE after my mum condensed pretty much the entire syllabus into a series of silly cartoons a few days before my exams) and so the title of this book is made even more appropriate. My only real understanding of electricity being that when I flip a switch, my lights come on (when the bulbs haven't gone), it really may as well be magic as far as I'm concerned.

So, Nikola Tesla...

Look at him. See? Told you he was cool.

A genius with a talent for invention as well as for winding up his investors and a great showman whose incredible lightning spewing demonstrations would capture the public imagination before his grandiose pronouncements and appetite for self-publicity saw him later dismissed as something of a crank unable to finish a project, Tesla would invent many of the things we take for granted in the modern world whilst also contributing to many more. He would also be eternally screwed over and in debt, his work credited to and making others rich, his achievements only properly recognised long after his death. 

Born in Smiljan in 1856 to a gifted family (particularly his mum, who was forever inventing new household appliances for herself) and possessing a photographic memory, Tesla was already far more accomplished by the time he'd left University than most of us could hope to be in a lifetime, having taken courses in arithmetic and analytical geometry, theoretical and experimental physics, integral calculus, analytical chemistry, mineralogy, machinery construction, botany, wave theory, optics, philosophy and higher maths, and speaking 8 languages. He’d also survived several near death experiences including plunging into boiling milk, drowning under a raft, being swept over waterfall, contracting cholera, and driving himself through overwork into a nervous collapse – something he would continue to do throughout his lifetime as he subsisted on bread and milk, sleeping only a few hours a night and pouring all of his energies into his work.

Moving to the US in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison’s company, Tesla would set out on his own after almost immediately receiving the first of many shaftings at Edison’s hands – being paid just $18 a day to redesign and reassemble much of the company’s equipment after having been promised $50,000. These shaftings would also continue throughout his life, and were as many and varied as his astounding array of inventions (which included an induction motor, electrical power distribution system, fluorescent and neon lights, wireless telecommunication, remote control, robotics and apparently even fricking laser beams) and came at the hands of not just Edison but the likes of Marconi, Westinghouse, Pupin, Steinmetz, JP Morgan and the US Government.

Facing a publicity backlash due to Edison’s dickish publicity campaign in which he electrocuted animals with Tesla’s competing AC system, mired in patent infringements and court battles, and forever toadying up to potential investors (mostly unsuccessfully, thanks to his habit of sending long letters bemoaning his hard luck and full of emotional blackmail, while asking for way more funds having abandoned agreed plans in favour of altogether grander schemes), Tesla would become far more paranoid, bitter and reclusive over time, allowing the weirder aspects of his personality free reign.

Amongst his many peculiarities were: an aversion to women's earrings and touching people’s hair, being sent into fits at the sight of pearls and fevers at the sight of a peach, insisting on living in hotels despite an almost pathological inability to pay his rent, where his mirrors must be draped and no sunlight must enter his room. And despite being a favourite of the ladies (especially of his friend’s wife, Mrs Katherine Johnson), he remained celibate – having eyes only for his work and, well, I’ll let him tell you: 
“I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a woman, and she loved me. As long as I had her, my life had purpose."

Tesla passed away at the age of 86, having outlived his pigeon, sending various secret agencies into frenzies as they tried to suppress his papers and get their hands on a rumoured death ray machine, Tesla having supposedly left a working model in a hotel basement in lieu of rent.

As a reading experience, due to the staggering amount of information imparted I sometimes struggled with Wizard - especially as much of it was highly technical information. This, coupled with the authors insistence on flying off on tangents and flitting around in time, meant that I often spent entire chunks completely befuddled and bewildered. But I still learned everything I could possibly want to know about one of the most interesting people to have ever lived, so I'm not going to hold too much against it.

And in case you're wondering, I'm firmly on the Tesla side of this rap battle:

iPhone/iPad click here

Monday, 8 September 2014

Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

4 stars

Red Seas Under Red Skies is the 2nd in the Gentleman Bastards sequence, and while the shine hasn't quite worn off yet - this is almost as good as its predecessor - I'm not quite slipping into complete squealing fandom yet either.

Catching up with the remaining Bastards as they try to recover from the horrific outcome of The Lies of Locke Lamora the only way they know how, Red Seas... finds Locke and Jean putting into place an elaborate scheme to rob the greatest gaming-house in Tal Verrar: The Sinspire. But as tends to happen with plans, more than one spanner is thrown into the works - the Bondsmagi are pissed about what happened to the Falconer, assassins keep trying to murder them and now the Archon (sort of the Julius Caesar of Tal Verrar) has decided that they'd do nicely for a job he has in mind. Which is how they find themselves at sea, surrounded by pirates.

I enjoyed spending time in a different place to the one we'd initially been introduced in Lies..., which helped add to the different feel of this book and the switch to being a naval adventure rather than a heist also worked for me, especially as it gave me two new characters to really get behind (Captain Drakasha and Ezri, the two kick ass women who show the Bastards how much better than them they are at pirating). The dialogue sparkled as much as ever, and more of a focus on Jean was also welcome (as he's my favourite).

However, this time around the beginning of the book suffered from several lulls and didn't really take off for me until we got onto the ocean waves, the 'villains' of the piece (or the marks, at least) - Requin of the Sinspire and the Archon - were nowhere as formidable, charismatic or plain entertaining as Barsavi and the Gray King, and a couple of the reveals towards the end felt rushed or a little forced.

Don't get me wrong - I still really enjoyed Red Seas... and I'm sure I'll enjoy the hell out of the rest of the series. It's just not yet had that magic ingredient that really makes me lose it. Fingers crossed that's just because it's waiting for me in the next one.