SirSurly's Books
Review
3 Stars
Identity Crisis
Identity Crisis - Ben Elton

Ben Elton, one of the planet's greatest comedy writers, is normally a safe bet for an amusing read whilst pushing the boundaries. These boundaries change with each novel, but something didn't work for me this time.

 

Ben, what changed? Is it you, is it me, or is this just part of your evolution?

 

With previous titles like Stark, Gridlock + Dead Famous, I enjoyed your stories. I suffered through this one, but I'm not sure if that's because I am a conservative, white, hetrosexual male (by the end of the book, I felt like a minority) And I don't do Twitter. Safe to say this novel only makes more more determined NOT to join the Twittersphere!

 

Set in the lead-up to the Brexit vote, our stoic Scotland Yard detective Michael Matlock is rapidly discovering the blowback for making comments considered Politically Uncorrect. What IS actually PC is a moving feast, and Matlock is not the only one scrambling to avoid becoming victim of a Twitter war.

 

I normally find Elton to be on the cutting edge of the present, or taking a fantastic view of a possible future. This one seems somewhere inbetween, and for that reason, I wasn't sure what to 'feel' as I read it. One night I would chuckle away, the next night I'd put the book down in utter confusion.

 

It's a coherent mystery, there is resolution, but it was not a satisfying tale for me...

Review
3.5 Stars
The Scarecrow Trilogy
Area 7 - Matthew Reilly Scarecrow - Matthew Reilly Ice Station - Matthew Reilly

This is an attempt to review three novels in one go. As they are all similar/inter-connected, it seems pointless to tackle each individually.

 

Matthew Reilly is an oddity – An Australian writer who has cracked into the action/espionage market. The stories move at breakneck speed, from his ‘Wonders’ series to this batch of ‘Scarecrow’ tales.

 

We follow the fantastic journey of a US Marine, call sign Scarecrow. He is no ordinary Marine. Not once, but thrice, the fate of the world rests on his shoulders. It’s tough enough to be sparring with other nations intent on stopping him, but when he realises he has traitors within his team, it comes down to Scarecrow to do it solo.

 

I’m sure most of you remember the Choose Your Own Adventure books? For those too young (way to make me feel old!), you got to the end of each page, then had a choice of 2/3 options, and turned to the relevant page for your pick.

 

We are going to do the same here, feel free to mix and match!

 

Scenario:

A – If Trump’s heart stops beating, then airports in the US north will explode. Sorry, I know that’s teasing, what’s a few airports to get rid of the turnip?

B – A cartel of Earth’s richest men are intent on launching nuclear strikes against most of the world’s major cities. Just to make more money.

C – Nations are slaughtering each other to access a UFO stuck under the ice. Scarecrow is fighting SEALS, and is saved by seals.

 

The Bad Guys:

A – The Chinese, the Russians, and parts of the US government. Britain. And the French.

B – Most of his command structure, some of his Marines, and the President’s Men. Britain. And the French.

C – 12 of the world’s richest men employ a bunch of psychotic bounty hunters. And the French. (The Brits helped him this time.)

 

Seriously, he was asked after the last novel what he had against the French. He saw them as perfectly placed to play the modern villain in the absence of Germany/Russia/Japan etc.

 

Destruction:

A – Pretty much everything, including an iceberg, a submarine and a UFO.

B –  Nearly everything, including fighter planes, half his team, Russian bases and a French Castle.

C – Everything, and then more. Seriously, I tried keeping a rough ‘insurance’ count in one of these, and my eyes starting rolling when we hit multiple trillions…

 

No Way!:

A – Climbs up from the launch vehicle to a space shuttle, just before separation. Overpowers crew, flies back to land. All in the space of 15min.

B – Spends up to 7 hours (out of 24) in freezing Antarctic waters. No wonder he is knackered for the final fight.

C – By my count, he loses his trusted sidekick Mother (a brute of a lady) 8 times over the 3 novels. Yet she is there hosting another BBQ at the end of the 3rd novel, making Houdini look like a novice.

 

I think you get the idea…

 

To be honest, you can grab 2 from each category and still fall short of just one novel. When the climax of each draws near, the trials and tribulations Scarecrow has faced flash though his exhausted mind. Then you are reminded he has essentially fought off up to 3 national forces and saved the world in 24 hours – again.

 

I generally don’t read Fantasy. This ebbs awfully close to that shore, but then, what espionage novel doesn’t flirt with that line. If you can suspend reality, then Reilly does a good job of telling a fast paced tale, loaded with action. Judging from the progression, I might need a seatbelt for the next world crisis.

 

** Reilly has also written Hover Car Racer. Originally written as an internet serial, and aimed at YA, this was great! OK, I’m an F1 fan (can’t stand most other motor sport), but this one held me cover to cover. Shows the versatility of Reilly – he has appeal with different audiences, and knows how to pace a story. One could say he chooses the ‘speed’ of his writing…

Review
4.5 Stars
Replay - Imagine another crack at life, time and time again...
Replay - Ken Grimwood

Have you ever read a book that changed your reading habits?

 

I have never before read the same book twice in the space of 4 months. Normally a decade or two will pass before I revisit some old favourites. I was on a rare holiday last September when I read this first time round. No other book has stayed with me like this.

 

Replay tells the story of Jeff Winston, a 43yo stuck in a rut professionally, and living out a loveless marriage at home. He dies of a heart attack at work – only to wake 25 years earlier as an 18yo student, back in 1963. His body is 18, but his mind is 43, and his journalist mind knows much of the ‘future’ he is about to face.

 

After struggling to cope with this time shift, and the existing relationships he is expected to return to, Jeff starts to see a future that he can shape. Until he is faced with a sobering reality. He can do nothing to prevent the heart attack that strikes him on that fateful day in 1988.

 

Author Ken Grimwood starts with the obvious fun – generating a bankroll. If you know the winner of the Kentucky Derby and the World Series, you can make some serious coin. And Jeff does! After cleaning out Vegas, he creates a global corporate empire, marries and has a darling daughter, then dies at 43…

 

As Jeff realises that he is destined to return despite his best efforts, he tries different paths. Starting with his reliable sports bets, he chooses different paths over various replays. From hedonistic sex binges through Europe, to an isolated farm in California, Jeff struggles to find happiness. Then he meets Pamela.

 

He suspects she is a ‘replayer’ too. When he can finally arrange a meeting with the in-demand Pamela, he knows he is right. She is confused and alarmed, believing she was the only one going through their common experience.

 

It’s not seamless, but over many replays, Jeff and Pamela live beautiful lives together. They finally have to acknowledge a disturbing fact – each time they ‘replay’, they come back later. Initially, it is only hours, then weeks, then years but with no discernible pattern. Pamela dies 3 weeks earlier each time, but had a family with 2 kids in her first life.

 

It was crushing to read the temporary end to each replay. Then, to destroy your soul, imagine coming back to the love of your life, but she doesn’t recognise you – she hasn’t ‘replayed’ yet. And that gap only grows.

 

On first reading, I was largely intrigued. This time round, I was invested from the start. Knowing the ending doesn’t ease the pain, and trust me, it’s best not to imagine yourself in this situation. I am sure that many partners would not be together had they met earlier in life.

 

This is not a gloom and doom tale, don’t let me give you that idea. There are many concepts for the brain to explore, ethical issues abound, and plenty of joy in the love stories.

 

Jeff learns that Replay gives you the freedom to do anything you want, and the appalling constraints to do anything you want. You just can’t take it with you…

 

 

Side Note - Stephen King’s 11/22/1963 is a similar tale – just takes him an extra 700 pages! After steering clear of King for many years, I was offered a copy just after the first reading of Replay. It felt like an ordeal to get to the end in comparison. I find King can tell a good tale, but his editor is obviously petrified of him. King does credit Grimwood in his book, providing the inspiration for 1963.

Review
5 Stars
Robin - The definite biography of Robin Williams
Robin - Dave Itzkoff

I’m not sure I would have ever bought this book. I don’t mind the odd biography, but Robin Williams wasn’t one of my favourite comedians. (Reminder to me to check on the latest Eddie Murphy and Chevy Chase offerings…) This was a Xmas gift from a friend who knows I am besotted with Dead Poets Society*.

 

We learn that Robin essentially remained unchanged through his life – his crippling self doubt would haunt him all career. Even as he flew high with early successes like Mork + Mindy, Robin always felt he could be delivering more, making people laugh harder, often discarding the script to find that magic connection with his audience.

 

On reading the movie and TV credits, I realise I missed viewing most of his performances. He was always there – first on TV (21 credits), then moved to the big screen (70 credits). I have only seen 3 of the movies, but when those 3 are Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poet’s Society and Aladdin, the genius of the man is clear.

 

 

Good Morning Vietnam was released when I was 14yo. Wow, what a movie! War, comedy, romance, music, comedy, guns, rebellion and pure bedlam. More importantly, it showed that Robin could be a box office success, something that had eluded him before then, and would continue to plague him for most of his career.

 

Many argue that Robin was too willing to take any part offered, rather than being more selective in picking roles that showcased his talents. When he did pick well, the rest of the film often let him down.

 

Dead Poet’s Society – I suspect this was one of the most shaping movies of my life. As a 16yo at a private school (nothing as intense as the 1950’s setting), and interested in reading, literature and acting, this one really hit home. I felt like I could relate to most of the male characters, and I still can’t watch this film without crying like a baby. It’s worse now – I know what’s coming, so I start earlier…

 

The back story on this film is painful. Shopped around the studios, the 1st buyer wanted the director of Revenge of the Nerds. Thankfully, that fell apart.  Later, with director Peter Weir on board, Dustin Hoffman was almost signed, but he wanted to direct too. Lucky Rainman came along... Robin picked up a surprisingly large number of roles after Hoffman rejected them.

 

Aladdin – This movie actually blew my mind! (As naughty teenagers we may have been in a slightly altered state. :P ) Finally, a movie that couldn’t restrict Robin – literally. As a cartoon genie, he was free to roam far and wide. The tale had been told 1000 times, but this version had you on the end of your seat, singling along, and laughing your arse off…

 

I don’t like labelling Robin as a ‘comedian’. He was so much more than that, but his constant need for positive feedback means the world, and many friends, really only saw that side of him. Many of his greatest performances came when humour was brief, and we saw the true genius behind his ability to absorb and live the role (Dead Poet’s, Fisher King, Good Will Hunting).

 

 

The performances, both live and TV/Movie only capture a portion of the man. Itzkoff does well to draw from friends like Billy Crystal and Bobcat Goldthwaite. We hear from all 3 wives, his children from 2 of those marriages, and learn more about what lead to his tragic death.

 

There are always unanswered questions with a life (and death) like Robin’s. Many of his friends felt the same way, and Author Dave Itzkoff admits there is a part of Robin that no-one ever got to truly explore.  Despite this dark hole, Itzkoff does a splendid job – he tells you the full story with intimate access to friends and family. Covering Robin’s career, marriages, battles and wins, this is truly a great biography.

 

 

*Really not a spoiler alert, more an example that having Disney as your movie studio isn’t always a great thing. Disney had a problem with the original title – The Dead Poet’s Society. This was the feedback from Disney executive David Hoberman:

 

Dead was a bummer, Poets was too effete, and nobody knew what Society meant”.

 

Worst was to follow with some Disney friendly ‘solutions’:

The Amazing Mr Keating

Keating’s Way

The Unforgettable Mr Keating

 

Thank God Weir + and Robin held firm, but Disney, in their infinite wisdom, decided to meddle anyway. They dropped the ‘The’… guess that’s why these guys are paid the big bucks. XD

Review
3 Stars
Dark, Sacred Night
Dark Sacred Night - Michael Connelly

I was given the privilege (courtesy of MBD) of an advanced, signed copy of this one. If Little Brown + Company were hoping I’d promote the book on the back of that, they were sorely mistaken.

 

Over time, I’ve read the entire Harry Bosch series, but in a rather haphazard order. Before reading Connelly’s latest offering, I thought it would be a good idea to go back to the start - the first Bosch story, The Black Echo.

 

The Black Echo is a great novel, a superb introduction to the Bosch character. While telling a tale, we learn of Harry’s problems with Internal Affairs, he works his moves with female officers, and we know the police brass don’t like his approach.

 

In Dark Sacred Night, Bosch has been paired with Ballard, the new star from the Connelly stable. Bosch, confined to cold cases, uses Renee’s spare time on the night shift to aid his investigations.

 

Renee made an impressive debut, but if she is to be partners with Bosch in future, as Connelly suggests, she will soon leave Harry in the dust.

 

At his advanced age, Harry is stretching reality with his lack of sleep. And he always seems to have money, not sure how he manages that on a semi-retired cop’s salary. Harry’s traditional ‘conquest’ is probably the best indication that he is not the detective we have enjoyed over 30 odd novels. Physical contests result in an inordinate amount of time in hospital.

 

We have nothing left to learn about Harry. Instead, you spend your time cringing as he maintains his one man war against city hall. Then imagine if your parents divorced, and you had to watch your father at 65 chatting up his new squeeze.

 

Even if I’d read my own review, I’d still want to read the new Bosch. I’d suggest this should be second last novel for Harry. One last hurrah, then let the poor bloke hobble off into retirement.

Task 1- this one was easy...

When you go by the moniker Harry

LA is a mess, but he's happy as Larry

He's got a view, a story, a true tale of woe,

But he'll work 24/7, screw his partner in tow

Solve the case, slip the tail and piss off the brass

Stress his daughter, ignore his boss and finish with class

When you are always under the cosh

It's your old friend Hieronymus Bosch!

Review
3.5 Stars
After reading this, I won't mention 'His' name either...
Macbeth - Jo Nesbo

Where to start…

For those familiar with Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Nesbo has stayed (largely) true.

 

For those familiar with Nesbo, while this might be a re-telling of a classic, there is no missing his style.

 

For those new to either – buckle in!

 

This book fucked with my mind – more than a little.

 

I am generally a quick reader. This book, at 503 pages, took me 2 weeks.

With an easy reading book, you pump through chapter after chapter each night. The story flows, the emotions are those you are familiar with, even if only in literary terms. You can forget that with Nesbo’s Macbeth.

 

Set in a dystopian town with little industry, and rampant crime underpinned by drug boss Hecate. A former drug addict, now SWAT commander, Macbeth is deemed the best option to lead the town out of its nefarious and corrupted past. The ballooning death-toll points to the folly of this choice...

 

I don’t like that the town doesn’t have a name. The clues intimate a town like Aberdeen in Scotland, and I can understand Nesbo not wanting to tag a town with this story. But give it a name! What do those in the Capitol (for eg.) call the town?

 

As a good private-school boy in Australia, we were required to read Macbeth early in secondary school. I suspect that’s because private schools liked to encourage many of the themes – strength, leadership and loyalty. Conveniently forgetting the other themes of treachery, addiction and megalomania.

 

As a 44 year old, I can now recognise all these themes have, and always will, drive humans.

 

I’ll admit it’s been a good 29 years since I read the original. In saying that, I think Nesbo has done a good job honouring the essence of Macbeth. Like the best of Shakespeare’s works, it often asks for the reader to delve into areas we prefer to avoid.

 

Why did it fuck with my mind (and sleep) for 2 weeks (while reading, and another week on)?

 

I can read about some brutal violence, I can deal with treason. I understand murder of families for the ‘greater good’ in espionage novels, and don’t give a second thought to those who fall in the classic spy stories.

 

In Macbeth, Nesbo/Shakespeare makes every death count. Each twist takes you to a place you don't want to go. As the tale unfolds, you find yourself cheering for those who will betray you, and you want a merciless death for those who are upholding your values.

 

I’m not sure who this book is pitched to; if it’s the traditional Nesbo fan, I’d suggest that while you are used to casual violence, there are questions raised in this story that could (and should) keep you awake at night.

 

If Nesbo was hoping to tap-in to Shakespeare disciples, I suspect they would have been alarmed at what he found necessary to do a ‘modern’ version.

 

 

*Partial Spoiler and trigger warning:

 

This does not affect the plot at all, but gives you an idea of what your mind must confront.

 

One of the main players is a middle aged woman trying to breast feed a baby, who has been dead over a week. If the idea of this messes with your head, do NOT read this book. Sorry Jo…

(show spoiler)

 

Review
1.5 Stars
The Dying Game (The Trying - Lame)
The Dying Game - Asa Avdic

Who: Asa Avdic - A Swedish journalist (tv and radio) – this is her debut novel.

 

What: A merge of dystopian Stockholm politics, and a ‘reworking’ of Christie’s And Then There Were None (The correct, modern PC title)

 

When: Sweden in 2037. For some loosely explained reason, the country resembles the broke communist countries of the 1950s.

 

Why: I have no bloody idea! She basically pinched half the idea, topped and tailed it with some internal politics, and convinced some publisher she had an original worth printing.

 

I am tipping no one will be rushing out to buy the book on the strength of this review, so I’m not going to bother with spoiler alerts. Also, it’s only fair to declare this book was originally written in Swedish (under the title of Isola). I don’t think it struggles with the translation, it’s the material that’s the problem.

 

20 years in to the future, Sweden has left the European Union. The Protectorate of Sweden is now under the Union of Friendship. There is seriously a whole page (fake encyclopedia entry) explaining this at the start – full of contradictions and confusion.

This convoluted set-up is necessary to explain the bleak state of Sweden. Under totalitarian control, we are introduced to Anna. She is forced by the Chairman to accept an assignment on a Swedish island.

 

Now here’s my problem – the next 60% of the book happens on the island of Isola. It does have some minor variations, but she’s so damn close to plagiarising And Then There Were None* , it’s almost actionable. I feel like Advic must have read the book at some stage, as the blueprint is almost identical, but long enough ago to feel like she was writing an original mystery.

 

Strangers stuck on an island, dying one by one, as the guessing game goes on. OK, in this story, there are fewer people, with a slight twist involved, but it’s essentially the same premise, setting, and result.

 

Then we’re back to dreary Stockholm for the wash-up. A series of interrogations to explain what happened, ending in the usual political buck-passing. The end…

 

It really is a bizarre mix of 2 stories – one that has Christie’s fingerprints all over it, and then the dystopian future of Sweden, a worrying futuristic view from the author, one of the country’s most popular TV current affairs presenters.

 

*I thought it was only fair to go back and read And Then There Were None before writing this. It had been 24 years since I first read it, but I could feel the tale coming back to me as I read The Dying Game.

 

Agatha Christie is a damn genius! First published in 1939, there are obviously some dated phrases and social conventions, but it still stacks up as one of the finest mysteries written. Fast paced and engrossing, nothing extraneous, and will have you guessing right to the end. To those who haven’t read it, I can’t recommend it highly enough.